Cycling Day 62 – Ninh Binh to Thanh Hoa
After a fairly short ride yesterday we had a longer one in store today to Thanh Hoa, a provincial capital to the southwest. At the hotel in the morning, we asked about the best way to see the limestone karsts and temples of Tam Coc and Bich Dong which is one of the main tourist attractions around Ninh Binh. Armed with a map and full of banana pancakes, we headed off on the main highway before taking the appropriate turnoff. Tam Coc is a bit like seeing Halong Bay on land – there are limestone karsts jutting out of the otherwise flat landscape all around you. Unfortunately the best way to see them is to take a three hour boat trip but we didn’t have time so we had to settle for the view from the road. At the central point there is a lake with a temple where we took a few quick photos of the bike and then headed on towards Bich Dong pagoda, a jade temple carved into a grotto in a limestone karst. On the way there we were beset by quite a few local children who were very enamoured with us and our bikes. They seemed particularly interested in all the gadgets that beeped on my handlebars. They rode with us for about a kilometre while practising their English. When we actually got to Bich Dong we went to have a look but it was prohibited for people dressed in shorts or tshirts so we settled for the view from outside. This turned out to be quite a worthwhile diversion for on 11km extra distance!
Back on the main road, we had another 14km on the highway before taking what appeared on Google maps to be a shortcut through some minor hills. It was great to get see a smaller road and really feel like we were in the Vietnamese wilderness. It looked on the map like there wasn’t really any turnoffs so we avoided the few tracks that left the main concrete road and followed it until we got to what we now believe was an army base. Given that pretty much everyone shouts at us as we cycle by (either Hello! or something we can’t understand in Vietnamese), I didn’t really think to stop when a few guys yelled at us and we just kept cycling in until we hit a locked gate. At this point there were two guys bearing down on us from behind at high speed on scooters yelling at us. There was a guy at the gate who came out smiling and gestured to us that we should go back the other way. He also took the chance to try a bit of English and seemed generally pretty friendly. His colleagues who were chasing us were not quite so friendly though and rather aggressively escorted us back to the gate where they pointed to a small building and demand that we go inside. At this point, we were feeling a bit uncomfortable and we pointed back towards the main road but they weren’t having any of it. Adamant that we weren’t going in to be interrogated, this standoff continued for a couple of minutes until eventually one of them gave in and just motioned for us to go away. More than a little relieved, we headed back to one of the unpaved tracks which we realised after consulting our phones was the “road” that we had seen on google.
At this point we were presented with a choice as to whether to return to the highway or take the track and risk either not being able to get through or another confrontation with the army, which we were quite keen to avoid. The lure of the unknown won the day, and we pushed up along the muddy trail. At this point I was glad to have a pretty solid bike – we were bouncing all over the place. While the climb only turned out to be about 100m, it was up some very steep and slippery hills where our back tyres were slipping quite a bit. It was definitely hard work in some places, but absolutely worth it when we reached the top. There was a Buddhist pagoda at the reasoning behind the location was obvious as soon as we took in the view across the valleys either side. We spent a few more minutes taking some pictures and then relaxed for a bit before taking the road back down the other side. We ran into a few farmers on the way on scooters who couldn’t contain their shock – I guess this road isn’t on too many of the cycling maps for Vietnam 🙂
Once we had rejoined Highway 1, we stopped in Bỉm Sơn for lunch. We were corrected on some of our pronunciation and it is starting to make a little more sense why they don’t understand us now. I think we just need to practice or vowel sounds a bit and we should be back in business. After a few minutes marvelling at just how hot the soup can become with the addition of a few chillies, we set off for the remaining 40km to Thanh Ho.
This wasn’t nearly as eventful as the morning’s ride, with the exception of encountering an Australian couple called David and Georgia who were cycling down the same route. We came across them about 14km out of Thanh Hoa and rode the rest of the way chatting and generally exchanging stories. They’d been travelling for a long time and had only just started to cycle on some bikes they’d rented in Hanoi. When we got to Thanh Hoa we found a hotel pretty quickly and went out for some food in the early evening. We stopped at one place for Bia Hoi and ended up chatting to the waitress for several hours as she wanted to improve her English and was happy to help us with Vietnamese. We had a great time (and a few too many beers) here before heading home ready for another similar ride tomorrow.
Timelapse: (note that I ran out of power towards the end of the day so we don’t have any footage coming into Thanh Hoa on Highway 1)