Vietnam [week 3]

A single day of misfortune prompted some fundamental rethinking of travel plans in the middle of an otherwise very comfortable and docile week. This ultimately led to us skipping a large chunk of the country, choosing instead to rocket south towards Saigon, where we now find ourselves.

We deliberately concluded last week poised at the base of Hải Vân Pass, a famous mountain road separating the cities of Huế and Đà Nẵng. Sam's birthday was on Saturday and we guessed it might be a nice place to start things off. Sure enough, breakfast looking out to sea from the mountainside was pretty nice.

Boxer and former Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson described the pass as a "deserted ribbon of perfection" when the show came to Vietnam in 2008, before using a racial slur and assaulting the cameraman.

He was right though, it was perfect and almost completely deserted. A tunnel was constructed in 2005 to bypass the twisty mountain road meaning nowadays only tourists bother going over the top.

Looking south from the peak we could almost make out our destination, the historic town of Hội An.

When we eventually checked into our accommodation an hour later, we were made to feel like visiting dignitaries. The staff greeted us with fresh banana pancakes and cups of ginger tea.

This was because Sam's mum had paid for us to stay in an expensive hotel for a couple of nights as a birthday treat. "Expensive" is a relative term in Vietnam as the room price was equivalent to two dorm beds in a New Zealand hostel.

It made a very welcome change to the five dollar guesthouses we were getting used to, which rarely came with towels or windows, let alone swimming pools. We took advantage by swimming almost constantly, even when we didn't want to.

Also paid for was a fancier-than-usual meal of Sam's choice, which ended up being Mexican from a stunningly good place called Hola Taco. Catering for us remotely is classic Sam's mum behaviour, who last year treated us to steak while we were travelling around New Zealand. Now that I think about it, she also fed me daily for two months earlier this year. Thanks for everything, Kris.

Hội An once thrived as a major trading hub in Southeast Asia, a position it held for centuries until its river silted up and shipping moved north to Đà Nẵng. Lots of the old Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Dutch buildings remain intact from those boom years, a magnet for lots of tourists.

Hội An is unquestionably the whitest place we've visited in Vietnam, but has dealt with mass tourism in quite a dignified way, without the constant touting and flashing neon signs you see elsewhere.

When our time in the hotel was up, we moved down the street into a big pink building, where a lovely lady called Tri had agreed to host us.

It was heartbreaking to euthanise the swans Tri had created for us, only to dry our bodies with their remains.

We spent most of the day at the beach, feeling very smug about having beaten the forecasted heavy rain. How little we knew.

The next day at least began well. We left Hội An with the intention of riding 700 kilometres over the next four days towards Đà Lạt, our next major stop. The first leg appeared straightforward and allowed time for a detour to Mỹ Sơn, a cluster of ruined Hindu temples left behind from the ancient Cham civilisation.

Pressing further inland along Google's definition of a major road, it gradually became apparent that the road in question was still under construction. We eventually gave up and accepted that the last hour of vibration and inhaling red dust had been for nothing. Our only option was to backtrack completely to Hội An and seek an alternative route, but daylight was now a concern, with only a few hours remaining.

Daylight would soon be dethroned in our list of concerns by rainfall, which began gently but soon felt monsoonal. I fell off my bike attempting to pull over for shelter, smashing a wing mirror and bruising my ribcage in the process. Although I was fine, it was frustrating that none of the several onlookers got up to help when they saw it happen. We moved our bikes off the road and stood underneath an awning outside a garage for the next two hours, waiting for the rain to ease.

When it finally did, we rode slowly to the nearest hotel and checked into a tiny room, soaking wet, grazed, sunburned and hungry. The only food place still open was a small convenience store, where the shopkeeper grossly overcharged us for some instant noodles, a box of crackers, and a pack of processed cheese wedges.

Storms were set to continue over the next four days, forcing a reassessment of plans. Riding was clearly not a safe option, whilst loitering somewhere we'd already spent four nights until the rain passed felt too much like treading water. Eventually we decided to catch a train to Saigon, where we'd base ourselves for our final week or so in Vietnam. We surrendered our bikes to the cargo guys and watched as they set about draining the gas from our full tanks into their own containers in order to "save weight".

The next part of the process was equally hilarious, a patching together of scraps of cardboard and sticky tape that would surely protect the bike from anything that would have otherwise damaged it while in transit.

When the bike had been fully secured, it was slotted into a wooden frame, ready for loading. I love the guy that posed for this photo.

Our train didn't leave until the following afternoon so we had some time to explore Đà Nẵng, a modern city of wide, tree-lined roads and skyscrapers.

Walking to the station the next morning we spotted this precarious box fortress on wheels, a common sight in urban Vietnam. Motorbikes are crucial to Vietnamese society; they use them for everything you'd use a car for in the western world, from taking your three small children on the school run, to transporting large shipments of goods across town.

It's a long way to Saigon, just over 16 hours on the express train, but the ride was surprisingly comfortable, with leather seats and air conditioning.

We passed some pretty scenery along the way, but the luxury of switching off and not granting the outside world my constant attention did make a pleasant change from our usual mode of transport.

The offer of dinner from a travelling meat pit made me feel physically sick.

Underslept and disoriented, we arrived at Saigon railway station at 5am like a delegation of zombies.

Our Airbnb apartment wasn't available until noon so the host suggested we meet at his office where we could nap in an empty conference room, then join his team for Friday lunch. This was a really nice gesture and the food was great.

After lunch we headed to the apartment, which overlooked Saigon's river and southern suburbs. Our new plan was to camp out here in Vietnam's largest city until our bikes arrived on the freight train three days later.

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