Paul and Ray arriving at Black Sea in 2012

Paul and Ray arriving at Black Sea in 2012
Paul and Ray at end of 1,600km ride from Budapest to Black Sea in 2012

Friday, March 10, 2017

Hanoi, Vietnam - mile 1063 - FINISHED!!

This post is from March 10, 2017.

We have made it to our destination! The biking was not hard today except for increasingly intense traffic as we penetrated into this big city of Hanoi. The weather was reasonably good and there were not many hills before it became completely flat the second half during this 68 mile day to Hanoi. Our actual finish line was to this bike shop that is now boxing our bikes for transport on flights home with us to Boston and Chang Mai respectively.




Here are a couple of shots trying to capture a sense of the traffic in Hanoi. In addition to capturing the traffic this also captured Ray about to have an emergency diarrhea attack and having to convince the store owners to let him use the toilet immediately:







Here is a shot of Ray making a new friend in the place on the outskirts of the city where we decided to have lunch:




The bike shop and our hotel are in the West Lake district of Hanoi. This is the view that welcomed us when we reached the lake and were only a few hundred meters from the bike shop:





And this, finally, is our location at the end of this long mountain bike adventure:




Thursday, March 9, 2017

Muong Khen, Vietnam - mile 995

This post is from March 9, 2017.


We are done for the day. We did about 57 miles and we are now 65 or 70 miles from the bike shop in Hanoi.  We expect to be able to make that tomorrow unless there are problems. The weather is supposed to be much nicer tomorrow and I think the terrain will be flatter. Today was mountainous the whole way and the worst problem was the wet clouds that we were in and the near-zero visibility due to the dense  clouds up in the mountains. We were cold almost the whole day although it did not exactly rain on us it was like rain because the clouds were so dense that when we moved through them we accumulated water on our bodies much like rain. Also it was very dangerous descending. Sometimes the visibility was no more than 30 or 40 feet in front of the bike and with the crazy drivers passing in an uphill lane that I was coming down it was very dicey to say the least. One time both lanes up and down were occupied by two trucks both coming up hill around the corner and I had to brake sharply and my rear tire went into a skid and the bike fishtailed but I was able to get control of the bike and bike off the road onto the dirt to allow the passing truck to occupy my lane. This only worked because I was already descending very cautiously due to the wet roads and the near total lack of visibility. I had my windbreaker on the whole day. Ray has no windbreaker and was suffering from the cold and also the comparative lack of exertion from climbing at my slow speed.

We did keep it safe by keeping the speeds down on the descents  but it was quite miserable with the cold and wet. We expect to reach our destination tomorrow. We are in another crappy hotel but at least I am warm under the blanket and dry and I had a semi hot shower.



These are shots of the town where we decided to stop for the night. As of this writing I am still trying to figure out the name of this town:











This is our location as of tonight:





Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Moc Chau, Vietnam - rest day

This post is from March 8, 2017. 

Because of 70% chance of rain and temperatures in the 50s today and being fairly high up in the mountains we decided to take a rest day today. We are currently two days ahead of our scheduled arrival in Hanoi so we felt this was wise.

Communications continues to be a challenge but sometimes it has its comical moments. This morning when we were trying to tell a woman at the guesthouse desk that we wanted to stay an additional night she clearly did not understand and we clearly did not understand the sounds coming out of her mouth. I went back to the room to get my phone in order to use Google translate, but by the time I got back Ray was telling me that he had managed to communicate with this woman that we wanted to stay an additional night and that I should pay her. He said it had taken him a couple of minutes to understand that the woman was explaining that she was a deaf-mute and she couldn't understand us. He had succeeded in communicating via sign language the request for the additional night, but it was extraordinary and bizarre that we were in a conversation with a deaf-mute and we could not tell the difference between that and a conversation with a typical Vietnamese these days for nearly 5 minutes. After that the woman asked me with sign language if we were bicycling today and I answered her with gestures that no, we were going to sleep in the room instead which she understood. So it turns out that the efficiency of our communication with a Vietnamese deaf-mute was superior to that of communicating with normal Vietnamese!

So today promised to be a pretty dull day just resting in our rooms out of the rain. Around 6 o'clock at night Ray knocked on my door and we decided to go out and try to get some supper. We went to the same restaurant we ate at last night which had provided good food and we had already figured out the Wi-Fi there and basic communication using Google translate. We ordered the same food we had the night before and it was fine and we had a beer each and then Ray was getting up to look for something and there was another table of Vietnamese that seem to be celebrating at a nearby table. This is a shot of that scene:




When Ray accepted their invitation to sit down to taste some of their food, little did we know that that would result in about two hours of celebrating with them International Women's Day with an infinite  number of shots of some homemade high alcohol moonshine and many different foods, some edible. Here are some shots from those festivities the last photo appears blurred which could be a photographic problem or could be the result of her about 30 shots of that alcohol:

During those two hours of conversation whenever someone needed to make a point that could not be articulated with a nod or with a certain number of fingers we resorted to Google translate which often produced interesting results. At one point one youngest woman responded to Ray:  "Dropping the towel she is not  ". The jury is still out on that.














During the course of the evening there was some singing involved. And twice they had us join in to a chorus of "Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam" which was a catchy tune and very sweet to do with them. But having been an American boy reaching adulthood in the late 1960s in the United States I have to admit that gave me pause. Having said that I was very happy to be there tonight sharing happiness with these sweet people.

Here is a shot of one of the ubiquitous patriotic billboards found in this part of the country:




Moc Chau, Vietnam- mile 938

This post is from March 7, 2017. 

We made 71 miles today so this town. We had real Vietnamese baguette for breakfast but from a small vendor off the street. They were $0.10 each. we also bought two cartons of soy milk each and drank that as there was really no other breakfast to be had and that was enough. My cough is probably slightly better today. The first 60 miles of biking were pretty flat and fast and that went easily however the last 10 miles were a steady uphill 10 mile climb which took a lot out of Paul. We ended up at about 800 m above sea level or 2700 feet and both Ray and I were a bit cold. It was cloudy all day today and we were a little bit afraid of rain and by climbing to this altitude the temperature is on the cool side for the little clothing that we have. We are hoping that any rain holds off for another 2 to 3 days so we can get to Hanoi without biking in the rain.

We get the impression that we are gradually leaving the mountains and entering bigger and longer valleys as we get closer to Hanoi so that should make. It is clear that we are getting closer to ever more densely populated areas. There are basically people and buildings on either side of the road almost constantly now. From a practical standpoint one of the biggest impacts of this is that it is difficult to find a secluded spot in which to pee!

These are shots taken about three quarters of the way up the big climb at the end of the day:








This is our location as of tonight:





We are about 120 miles from downtown Hanoi now.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Son La, Vietnam- mile 867

This post is from March 6, 2017. 

We got started later than normal today. We did not start biking until about 9:20. This was largely due to the exceptionally delicious and good breakfast that we had in the hotel restaurant this morning and also the fact that we thought we were only going to do 40  miles today. As it turns out, this town that we wanted to go to was actually 50 miles away so we did not get here until a little after 3 o'clock, and that included only two short 10 minute breaks for drinks and energy. Shortly after leaving the town this morning we started a 10 mile long climb that gained about 2700 feet of elevation with grades between four and 10%. That one climb took me over two hours of nonstop grinding uphill. Ray was nice enough to stay behind me the whole way but he could've gotten that over much much faster. During the day we saw some interesting scenery:








This was a break for fresh-pressed sugar cane juice:




This is our location as of tonight:




My cough and breathing were definitely not worse today. I only need to keep things together for another 4 to five days since we are only 200 miles from downtown Hanoi right now

This is the sign for our hotel tonight:




This little critter was right on the main street of the town as we walked to a restaurant:




Our restaurant was actually pretty western style and we had spaghetti for supper and they had karaoke so Ray gave a one song performance:





Sunday, March 5, 2017

Tuan Giao Vietnam - mile 817

This post is from March 5, 2017. 

We made it to this town which was our intended destination in only about four hours of biking today. This was only a 48 mile day. Paul's breathing continues to be a big challenge for him so we have decided to take a more direct route to Hanoi than we had originally scheduled. We are trying to figure out that route now to make sure that it makes sense in terms of daily mileage and availability of lodging each night. Here are some shots of the scenery today:









This is our location tonight:




Friday, March 3, 2017

Dien Bien Phu Vietnam-rest day

This post is from March 4, 2017.


Today was a rest day here in Dien Bien Phu. We engaged an English speaking tour guide to show us around the battlefield sites. I did not understand this before today but the city itself did not exist until after the battle was over: it was just a big valley empty of people that the French army decided to occupy in a strategic military move. After the decisive victory of the North Vietnamese forces over the French in May 1954 the Vietnamese then decided to build the city on the spot thus the tour of the battlefield sites actually means going to different parks throughout the city which is where the concentrated fighting was. Between these sites is just normal busy thriving city. I will attach some photos below of what we saw during our tour this morning. Note that I was two months old when this battle began in March 1954.

These shots were from inside the museum. This was a bicycle used by the North Vietnamese (Viet Minh)  to carry up to 337 kg of war materiel:




These are shots of General Castries' bunker, which was captured intact and preserved  since then. The general was also captured and was a prisoner from May until August 1954 when he was freed as a result of the Geneva peace talks of 1954 which resulted in the French withdrawal  from IndoChina:






This is a still remaining French military bridge now are used only for motorbike traffic to the market behind it:







This picture is of the place where a French Colonel Piroth,  commander of the French artillery committed suicide early in the battle:




This is a memorial to the French soldiers who died in this battle:




These are shots of Hill A1 where some of the most intense fighting happened. This was one of the highly defensible French strong points that were considered to be impregnable by the French. Looking at these positions today it is easy to understand why they would believe this. They were very defensible sites filled with barbed wire trenches and bunkers looking down upon the attacking enemy. 














These are shots are of a single bunker on  hill where 67 French lost their wives defending and 1800 Vietnamese troops lost their lives taking the bunker:







The decisive moment in this battle came on May 6 when after 15 days of fighting the North Vietnamese placed a 1000 kg bomb inside the hillside and detonated it. They had believed that they had reached underneath a key French bunker but in fact they had not and it just blew a big hole in the hillside. Despite this miscalculation this won  the battle for them because the intensity of the explosion was such that it created severe concussions for the French defenders who came out of the bunkers with their hands up with their ears and noses bleeding. That was the end of the  many-week long defense of hill A1. You can see the giant crater from this blast in this photo:





We have not seen many Westerners here in the city. In all of the walking through the battlefield sites this morning almost all the tourists were Vietnamese. On hill A1 though there was an elderly French couple about four years older than me who was walking around.  We spoke for a time in French and I learned that they were visiting the site because this woman's father had actually fought in this battle. It turns out that he survived and was not taken prisoner because before the end of the fighting many French were actually evacuated. The defenders that were taken prisoner were part of a core fighting force that the French left behind thinking if they could indefinitely hold the strong defensible positions. So the number of French actually taken prisoner was much smaller than it would have been, according to our our guide.


Today's comical tidbit involves me getting my first ever sign-language-only haircut. I do like to keep my head pretty closely shaven and I now had over 2 1/2 weeks of growth and those of you who know me well know that long hair starts to block my vision :-).   In any event I managed to find a barber today and explain to him my needs by taking off my hat and rubbing my head while making buzzing sounds. He understood and did a nice job for about two dollars. Strangely Ray's  use of a similar technique to obtain shaving cream never bore any fruit. Ray would rub his chin making shaving gestures and then squirting sounds indicating he wanted the cream. He tried this about three times and each time the person brought out a razor. When he clarified that he did not want the razor but the cream they all shook their head. I guess we have to assume that shaving cream it's not a common product here in Vietnam.



Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam - mile 769

This post is from March 3, 2017.

We started off this morning to warmer and dryer weather at around 9 AM. We had to do about 19 miles to the border between Laos and Vietnam. The last 13 miles of those was a moderate but steady climb. You exit through Laotian immigration about 2 miles before the actual border and go through Vietnamese immigration about 2 miles after the border. The border itself where there used to be some sort of customs office is now a kind of no man's land. Everything is in ruins there.

As I neared the top of that 13 mile climb Ray had gone ahead to check things out. I was grinding away and breathing heavily nearing the top when I saw Ray biking downhill towards me yelling "They're going to close in 10 minutes you have to hurry up". It turns out that the customs and immigration offices close between 11 o'clock and 1 o'clock each day for lunch.  We did not know this before hand but information like that is hard to come by in this part of the world, except for reading blogs like this one. In any case I did manage to get to the Laotian border control station at about 10:50. The process of stamping our visas to exit was fairly straightforward and we were done by 10:57. We asked the officer where did we go to enter Vietnam. He pointed in a vague direction which we eventually understood and we pedalled off after he said "you have two minutes". We were thinking that somehow it would be around the corner and we might make it by 11 o'clock Well, the Vietnamese immigration is about 4 miles away, so no amount of pedaling was going to get us there in two minutes.

During that 4 mile ride through no man's land we saw these signs:








Naturally, when we got to the Vietnamese customs house it was shut until 1 o'clock so we found a very small restaurant where we had some soup. There was a busload of students  from Laos  that were going on a three day holiday to Vietnam. We spent some of the remaining time until 1 o'clock resting and talking with them here are some photos of those moments:







When 1 o'clock came the people in the bus were polite enough to let Ray and I go first so we were done with our immigration into Vietnam and the check of our visas in about 10 minutes and quickly went through the security control gate. Right after that there was a small store where I was able to change my remaining Laotian money (Kip into Dong) into the Vietnamese dong currency. I also bought a Vietnamese SIM card for my IPhone so I now have a Vietnamese telephone number and I am able to do data here in Vietnam even without a Wi-Fi connection. The descent from the border to Dien Bien Phu looked very easy on the maps I have been looking at but the road was in terrible condition and I actually lost my computer sensor and hurt my panniers during that 15 km long rough dissent. The panniers have lost all their internal structure and are catching on my spokes.  I need to somehow reinforce them before we continue. Here are some views during that descent. Note that the grade sign is in fact covered with thousands of bugs:







When we finally reached the valley floor we had about 10 miles of flat biking in this Dien Bien Phu valley in order to get to the city. These are some of the many views of massive rice fields we saw on that drive:







This is our location as of tonight: