Boat diaries, Vietnam. A trip on the Perfumed River, Hue.

Flowing East from the border of Laos and Vietnam, the Perfumed River is at the heart of the city of Hue. It is not surprising, then, that boats take tourists up and down the river. The cost is low enough for me to hire a boat for two hours today. The captain and first mate were half mad. Real characters. Before we got going, they were asking me to shout out to a nearby captain that he is a crazy and chases bad women. That’s what they told me I was saying, but I have my doubts. The captain, “Thuc Ba”, immortalised in the photo below, smiles and continues to pour petrol out of a drum while smoking a cigarette. 

The Thien Mu pagoda was our destination, and it impressed me very much. Despite having no interest in religion, it is a remarkable work of architecture and has been a centre of Buddhist teaching for many years. Built in 1604, it has seen Emperors and Dynasties and governments and Presidents come and go. A friend of the captain gave me a guided tour.


Around the back of the pagoda are houses for the monks, and some artifacts and memorials. One is the car used by a Buddhist monk named Tich Quan Duc to drive into a square in Saigon and kill himself by setting himself on fire. The photo (below) was printed in newspapers around the world and won many awards. It raised the consciousness of many people concerning the pain in the hearts of Vietnamese people under the unpopular, American-installed puppet government in South Vietnam. Despite all of this happening in 1963, when I was just 3 years old, the image echoed down through time and was imprinted on me in my childhood. 


Of course, there are many religious relics and other things to see, and there are monks and nuns cruising around in their robes. In summary, the trip took 2 hours and was very enjoyable, and was a bargain at $15. The boat could hold 15 people, so that would only cost $1 each. But maybe you should be more careful than I was about accepting the challenge of the captain to yell at the bystanders.


Tam biet.


Bicycle diaries, Vietnam. Review: Are the bike and the gear up to the task?

Another rest day, this time in Hue. Potentially this is an important place because I can get the body and bike fixed it anything has broken or fallen off. 

In case it is of interest to touring cyclists, this blog is about wear and tear and bent and broken bits. After 1800 km on a variety of Vietnamese roads and all sorts of weather the bike and gear (and I) have been thoroughly tested. 

What has broken or worn out?

My gloves, which started new, and I thought looked quite tough. They are the intermediate level of Pearl Izumi road gloves. They might just last to HoChiMinh City (another 1000km of easy and intermediate roads).

My rims, which were almost new Shimano R500s. The mud and grit and hills of NW Vietnam took a huge toll on the rims. Within 500 km they were 80% worn. Fortunately, the conditions have been much easier since then. But the wear indicator on the rim (a small pit) has disappeared, so someone at Shimano thinks they need to be replaced. Me? I’ll use them for another 1000km. A complicating factor is that if a few spokes break it would seriously weaken the wheel and increase the chances of the rim breaking, so maybe then I would have to get new wheels.

My brake pads are 50 to 80% worn. Every time that I go to replace them, I decide to leave them on for another day or two.

Spokes. It is difficult to see in the photo, but there’s a broken spoke wrapped around its neighbour. Three have broken. Two originals, plus one of the replacement spokes – all on the rear wheel. I suspect that the broken replacement is a plain steel spoke, and just wasn’t strong enough to take the beating that the stainless steel spokes can take on rough roads. It is the broken one shown in the photo.

The chain. The dirt and mud and water and grit have been very nasty to the chain and gears. The chain lube I brought from Australia has been hopeless. After using it for way too long, and trying to ignore the grinding sounds from the chain, I am now using a gear oil (like a heavy motor oil). It is excellent. The mechanic insisted that I didn’t pay for it, but I left $0.50 under his beer.

The mirror is on the left – and the gear changer (derailleur) is on the right – a recipe for one or the other to get damaged in a fall. My mirror has been broken twice, but it still works ok because the glass is glued to the backing. Which is good, because riding here without a mirror would be a mistake.

A general comment about corrosion….the warm wet weather and coastal salt or inland limestone make for serious corrosion. Within 15 minutes of washing my bike in Phong Nha, the chain was rusty red. Some nuts and bolts on my bike have mild corrosion after just a few weeks.









What has been tough and reliable?

The bike frame. It is a Hasa (unknown) brand from Taiwan with an alloy frame (can be fixed with welding and rivets if necessary).

The tyres and tyre liners are Continental TourRide 37mm with Mr Tuffy Lite liners for the standard 700c rims. The tyres have almost no cuts and I’ve had no punctures. On the roads here you’ll see lots of wire, glass, ceramics, cans, nuts and bolts, nails, bricks, rocks, holes, pipes,….you get the picture. Under these circumstances, the tyres and liners have done their jobs exceptionally well.

The gears (cassette). The chrome-plated mountain-bike cassette (Shimano Deore) has been good. Not much wear at all. I use 9 speed gears rather than 10 speed because the chain and gears are wider and tougher. I would consider using 7 speed gears in the future, especially because the chain is wider and more rugged.

My shoes. They are Shimano MO76 mountainbike shoes, and have taken a load of mud and grit and rocks and are still in very good condition. A very pleasant surprise

The water bottles. In particular, the “Polar” brand insulated bottle has been terrific on hot days, because a friendly shop owner might drop a chunk of ice in there.

The Topeak bike rack (a Tourist DX, from memory). Light but rugged. The panniers clip on and stay put.

The Ortlieb panniers have done the job without a moment of worry. They are “front” panniers because even these can carry a lot of stuff (25 litres?).

That’s about all that I can think of just now. If you have a question, just ask. If you are going on a cycling tour, then best wishes and smile a lot. Because other people are working while you are living it up. 😃

Bicycle diaries, Vietnam. Bad behaviour, Bridges and Breaking Wind to get to Hue.

G’day readers. Put an Australian accent over that and say it again. G’day is a ripper of a thing to say to educate and confuse the local people. But I digress, and this blog doesn’t need sidetracks. It’s going to be longer and with more bends and twists than the MeKong River.

The 120km ride today was sensational. Tough, wonderful, confusing, scenic, diabolical, friendly and slow. And then more of the same for the second half after lunch. Today was my busiest with the camera of the whole trip because it was so diverse. There were people, animals, buildings, bridges, crops and a many other things to photograph today. Where do I start? Maybe at the start of the ride? Genius.

Cycling out of Dong Ha, a vibrant city on a big river in North-central Vietnam, I’m thinking of the 85 km to Hue. It is a shortish distance and flat as a pancake, so I’m in no rush, and after only half an hour I see a nice cafe and slow down, and there are several older women sitting, having a nice cup of tea. That’s two reasons to stop, so what am I going to do?

One is smoking a fat cigar-like thing, which is unusual because (as far as I know) it is frowned upon for women to smoke in Vietnam (at least in public). Around the table, we quickly get chatting and laughing. I suspect that they are “taking the piss”, perhaps because of my bicycle pants and pink and black top. A few people over the previous weeks have commented that I’m wearing women’s clothes. They are mostly wearing austere grey/mauve pyjamas, which means they are either Buddhist nuns or they might be from an old people’s home. One or two of the women are wearing pyjamas with a fine print on them, so they might be the local older women hanging out in the shop for their morning tea and an information-gathering session (aka gossip).

It doesn’t take long for them to get frisky. Three of them want to marry me. Usually, that would be the normal cheeky sort of thing a sixty or seventy year old Vietnamese woman would say about a “toyboy” like me. But in this case they make it clear that they plan to share me ! The cheeky Devils! We talk about cycling and they explain that they do a lot of it, and show me the strong arm muscles that they have developed. Maybe something got lost in the translation? Anyway, they pose for a photo, and each of them spend ages checking out how they look. They say goodbye and head out onto the street. To catch a bus? Five minutes later, I pass their procession a kilometre up the road, and indeed they are Buddhist nuns out for a religious festival, with a beautifully adorned golden wagon, a dozen cars with them, and many people praising and worshipping them. Wow. Fun nuns.

A bit further down the road I turn off the highway and immediately there’s a sign for the citadel at Quang Tri (kwong chee). Why not, I think. A good choice, because it is extensive and well made and explained. Of course, not much remains after the Americans bombed it in their war. But away from the new parts built after the war, there are ancient walls in wonderfully craggy and decrepit condition. And I really like the BIG brass cannons. Short and wide. Later in the day I was thinking about how these worked, and a wild guess says that they were loaded with big rounded rocks that blew apart when the cannon was fired. The wide mouth would allow the shrapnel to fly in a wide pattern, harming many people. Similar cannons in HaNoi were exhibited in an area where rounded rocks were also exhibited. But I don’t know. 

Heading northeast now, in order to get well away from the busy highway and ride through the rice crops and canals. The canals are for irrigation because the area is very low – just centimetres above sea level – and without fresh water, salt would creep in and kill the crops. As shown on the map, my blue path was very wobbly and long near the start today (I got lost a few times). But in my defence, the map didn’t mark many of the roads I was riding on. Maps of this area are universally hopeless. But it’s not like it was all bad – I didn’t have to backtrack on any of the long skinny roads, the traffic was very light, there were people about the place and the scenery was good.

Bending back to the south resulted in close scrape with Highway  1 (the grey line) – and at a big crossroads I ignored the local people and continued straight. Not towards the highway and not towards the sea. The montage below shows the progression of the road from superhighway to dirt track. For some reason, every downgrade in the road seemed hilarious. 

After two or three hours I got to the minor highway running parallel to the coast (49B). Sometimes it was a good road, sometimes a dodgy road, but always there was a headwind and always the people were friendly. As I make my way along, a young fellow (Kim Trong) cruises up next to me on his motor scooter and we start to chat in English. When I stop for a drink, he stops and translates for me. How friendly is that? Just to top things off, at the drink stop there is a very funny guy who is about 60 years old and has had a few lolly waters, and a wonderful old man who is….90 years old. He is in damn fine shape, getting in and out of his mini chair and walking down the road to go home (how many hundred metres to home?). 

Back on the bike, I’m getting to within a few km of the bridges that will rise up and take me across the waterways, paddies and wetlands to Hue.

Then three things happen at almost the same time. Some westerners go past on motorcycles. They seem friendly and well – equipped and are having lots of fun. We exchange “peace” signs. Also, now, just before Hue, there are road signs giving directions to Hue. A bit late! Last, when I stop to check my GPS and take photos, children beg for money. Worse than that – some of them are demanding money. It’s a shock to me. 

In no time, the brazen kids are forgotten when I see a group of happy school kids in colourful hats,who are shy but fascinated. They scatter and run for their lives when I take a photo. Why?Are all 8 year old schoolgirls as nutty as fruitcakes? Probably! These are.

The carnival continues with goats high on a bridge (without a goat herder), an apricot-coloured church, crazy driving, more headwinds, eating cassava fritters. All crazy, surreal things, except for the cassava fritters, which were delicious.

Not long now….almost there….more traffic….but the GPS isn’t showing where the hotel is located. Surely it’s close – I can feel it in my bones. The hotels are mainly around here, but there are so many. After 8 hours and 15 minutes on the road this is a pain in the arse (long-distance cycling joke). A fellow asks me if he can help, in a typically wonderful Vietnamese way. His answer was a great close to today’s lost and found, up and down, round and about travels. 

He says, in good English… “it’s not far”….”this way”…”not more than 20 metres…”

Tam biet. Goodbye. See you later.

Hue, North-central Vietnam, where the Ideal Hotel IS an ideal hotel.

Hello. This is a blatantly positive review of a hotel in Hue. 

Passing comments are my usual response to staying somewhere good, but in this case I’m going all out to sing the praises of the hotel. It was a choice of chance, picked from Agoda, which is one of the better booking services for SE Asia (http://www.agoda.com).

The last time I discussed a hotel, it was the HaNoi Evergreen in the Old Quarter. It is outstanding because of its location, its low price, and the service from the staff, which is faultless. You can check it out here: http://www.hanoievergreenhotel.com

But the Ideal is Hue (http://www.idealhotel.com.vn) is exceptional for a different reason. The service is good, but for a low price it is in a good location and is super luxurious. Even though it is the low season, the rate of US $20 per night is good in my opinion. That includes a breakfast with cooked food. The omelette that I had was delicious. Similar hotels charge $25 to $50 per night for a room and food like this. Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention that the beds are luxuriously firm (semi-western). You are going to adore these beds if you’ve been sleeping on Vietnamese beds (usually harder than slabs of marble).

In the crazy tourist town of Hue, it is really nice to have a good room for peace and relaxation. For me, the Ideal is ideal. Tam biet.

Bicycle diaries, Vietnam. Dong Hoi to Dong Ha.

Hi again. This diary entry will be so quick. Today was a really nice ride along a country road. It was 120km long and took just under six hours. There were no serious hills and just a couple that got me working. Although it looked like rain from the start to the finish, and many kilometers of the road were wet, only a couple of spots of rain fell.

The montage shows the connecting road (4B) between Dong Hoi and the HoChiMinh highway. Some parts of the road had markets and more traffic than you can see here. Another photo is of a road marker with a joke about a “long day” and that I’m 1000 km from the northern end of the HoChiMinh highway. And it’s 1000km to my destination – HoChiMinh City. 

After I arrived in Dong Ha, had a shower, worked on the bike and generally settled in, I went out on the street for food. I see some westerners on motorbikes and one looks like the guy behind the bar at the Easy Tigerr in Phong Nha. He says hello – it is that guy. And there’s Maree, motorcycle adventurer. What are the chances? 

But the bit that makes the best story from today could have happened anywhere…..
Two women ride past on a motorbike, and the rider says “hello” to me. This happens to me a lot. But in this case, the pillion checks me out, then slaps the rider on the back. Apparently the rider crossed a line. Then the rider slaps the pillion on the leg. I laugh loudly and they hear me, and laugh too. Then they slap each other again. So funny that I’m almost crying. More slaps. There used to be a television show with characters like this:

 For the Gen Y, Gen Z and whatever came after that, you can find Moe, Curly and Larry at http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Three_Stooges

That’s the diary for today. Tomorrow: Dong Ha to Hue (tourist capital). How will I handle them? 

Bicycle diaries, Vietnam. Doing it in Dong Hoi. City of harmony.

Hi. Thanks for joining me again, dear readers. After a short ride yesterday, I’m in Doing Hoi, where North and South Vietnam used to be joined. The area is loaded with wartime memorials and sites. Quite a lot of tourists come through, and so the town has travel agents, a bakery, and other western-oriented stuff. But it is also a wonderfully Vietnamese town. 

Dong Hoi has the best blend of East and West that I’ve found in Vietnam. That’s a big call, but one that I feel I can make quite confidently.

An example of that was the cafe that I visited mid-morning. The western influences include the fact that it served coffee and lots of other different options for drinks and food. 

It’s not immediately obvious for most people arriving in Vietnam that the small shops that look like cafes mostly don’t serve coffee. In rural areas, if you are European in appearance, you might not be offered tea, either. The locals assume that westerners would want black tea (called “tea Lipton”)…..which they don’t serve in small shops and cafes. Crazy! Anyway, these photos are scenes from the Quan Cafe Ban Me. Ask a taxi to take you to Rap Chieu Bong 15-7, Thanh Pho (in Donh Hoi, of course). We had a lot of fun getting these photos. MaMa loved the camera!

The next montage is concerned with buildings and architecture, which are very interesting here. Unfortunately, the big old church was destroyed in 1965 by “the Amrican aggressor aircraft”. It’s a sad fact that many places in the North were destroyed by the U.S. during a period of “peace” between 1957 and 1965. I’m no expert, but it seems that the North may have been attacked in brutal retaliation for battles with revolutionaries in the South. 

The attacks during this period probably encouraged the Red Viets and North Vietnamese Revolutionary Army and the Viet Cong and other groups to join up against the South Vietnamese government and the U.S. And through the diplomacy of HoChiMinh, past differences with the Chinese and Russians were patched up to fight against the American aggressor. Exactly what the U.S. was trying to avoid.

But that’s all in the past. While the past is well-remembered in Vietnam, it is studied as history and all is forgiven. Perhaps not the governments of the day, but the people of then, and certainly the people of now.

The last montage is about the river and beach in Dong Hoi. It has a wonderful quality about it. Clean, moving, busy with boats. It is about a hundred metres across – not a typical huge coastal river. Some boats are tiny and some are huge. Many are fishing boats between 20 and 50 feet long. The river and the boats exist at a very human scale.

Just like the city itself. Well worth a look as part of any trip in Vietnam. I’m staying an extra day to look around some more. 

Goodbye and Tam Biet.