20 September – hanoi – Long Cốc
Awake just after 7.30am, giving the alarm a reprieve from doing its thing by mere minutes.
Remaining bits and pieces packed up, sunscreen applied, after recalling what happened on the first day I spent with Toan five years ago, on our trip up North, and just as we’re heading out the door at 8.30am, Toan messages to say he’s downstairs.
The bill is quickly fixed up with Kate for the first three nights, and we say goodbye to our main bag, as we head outside to see Toan. It’s just so great to see him again, after three very long years.
He introduces us to Hung, who has been handed the responsibility of looking after Lisa, while I’ll be riding with Toan.
Bags strapped down, and we’re quickly on our way, and into Hanoi’s very busy streets. And yep, with the sun out, and it already being very warm, it’s already apparent that that sunscreen decision was a very good one indeed.
We make our way through the city, and with the amount of traffic, it’s pretty slow going. Eventually we reach a few familiar streets, and sights, which I recall from the 2017 trip, but up until that point, I’ve had less than no idea about where we were going.
The sky rail, which was still under construction in 2017, soon comes into view, and like five years ago, the size and height of it is just massive.
It’s rather prominent.
Every now and then I get a glimpse of Lisa, and at the moment, she appears to be coping with the journey.
But I do know there will, at some point in the next few days, if not later today, be a time when she won’t be looking as ‘happy’ as she is right now.
Eventually that big train line disappears, and not long after, so too does ‘built up Hanoi’. It’s been over an hour since we left the Emerald, so it gives a bit of an idea of how big and spread out Hanoi is.
We now have sights of farming land, with rice and corn being grown, as well as huge plastic sheeted greenhouses, along with the usual farmed ducks and cows.
A bit after 10.00am, we pull over at a roadside vendor. She does boiled corn, so we take the opportunity to have a break, as well as a snack, seeing as we didn’t have breakfast before we left.
The corn is beautiful, in both aroma and flavour, and is enjoyed as much as the rest and the shade we’re now sitting in.
We even try the, now flavoured, water the corn was boiled in, and even that is pretty good. And at 5000 Dong per corn cob, it’s quite possibly the cheapest snack / meal you can get.
Corn with Toan and Hung.
Rest done, we’re back on the bikes, and back in the heat. Fields occasionally give way to a small town, and even a large city at one point.
The usual sights abound, of countryside Vietnam, with tea, corn and rice drying on the side of the road. And then there’s the businesses; the coffin maker, just down from the tombstone guy, and plant nurseries, not too far from someone selling garden ornaments.
All very rustic and rural looking, until the huge, and what looks brand new, car dealership comes into view.
It stands out like the proverbial, and, in my opinion, adds nothing to its surroundings.
In one of the towns we make a stop for fuel. I glance at Lisa: so far so good, she still looks happy.
Fueled up, our journey continues, until we stop again just before 12.00pm. This time it’s at a small grocery store that’s being run out of a family’s front room. Toan asks the owner for some water, but it seems they’re out of water at the moment.
Doesn’t matter, we take the opportunity to stretch our legs again.
Toan then mentions that we’re only about half an hour from where we’ll be staying tonight, which not only surprises me, but also increases Lisa’s happiness levels.
I knew we were staying in Long Cốc, but as I’d left it all up to Toan, I never bothered to check how long we’d likely be on the bikes today. I’d just assumed, again quite wrongly, that it would be a rather long day before we reached our ‘destination’.
Legs stretched, we begin the final 30 or so minutes. The scenery has become much more rural, with narrower roads and less civilisation. There’s also a lot more tea plantations to be seen, which is what Long Cốc is known for. I’ve seen tea being grown before, and while it’s all nice enough looking, it doesn’t really do it for me like fields of rice do.
We continue on, and being around lunch time, we start seeing lots of school kids on bikes heading home. That results in lots of hellos and lots waving going on, which is always a lot of fun.
Sure enough, about 30 minutes after our last stop, we reach what looks to be a rather small and dusty looking town. And not long after entering it we pull up at our accommodation for the night, the Long Cốc Homestay Thanh Biên.
We head in, and first impressions are good. We meet the owners, who are a Hmong couple, and they’re incredibly friendly and welcoming. The house itself, is a stilt house, with our room being upstairs, and a communal area with tables downstairs.
We drop our bags off in our room, which while basic, is more than adequate, before heading back down for a lunch of two minute noodles, where we also meet another tourist couple, Sharon and Peter, who have just arrived.
Lunch done, we sit and just generally relax. It’s still incredibly hot, and having just spent the last four hours or so in the sun, it’s nice to have a little down time.
The view from the backyard of the homestay.
Toan actually mentions that it’s been unseasonably hot this year, which pleases me, as it really has felt much hotter to me than previous trips at this time of year.
Around 2.00pm, and rather than going off to the tea fields, Toan, along with the owner of the homestay, suggest we opt for the potentially cooler option of a nearby waterfall. Sounds good to me, and the five of us are back on the bikes and on our way.
Out of the homestay, turn left, go about 20 metres, then come to a stop outside of what looks like could be some sort of workshop.
Off the bike, and it seems we have a problem.
Toan’s back tyre, which, because of its position is rather important to me, now no longer possesses the ability to retain the air it was designed to hold.
He reminds me that we’ve been here before with this particular issue, when we did the Far North five years ago. I actually remember that day well, including the really ugly little pig that kept an eye on us, but it does make me think that I’m perhaps the bad luck charm when it comes to all things punctures.
Then again, if Toan had not run over the sharp thing that is now stuck in his tyre, we wouldn’t be in this predicament….
He heads inside the workshop to find the guy that can help us, and while I can’t see what’s going on, I can hear Toan trying to get someone’s attention. My assumption is that it’s siesta time, and he’s trying to wake the guy up.
Toan returns a few minutes later, but alone, and I look at him inquisitively.
“He’s asleep”, he says, rather matter of factly, but then adds with a giggle, “He’s also drunk!”
Well, the combination of how Toan said it, along with the thought that a guy, who is at work at 2.00pm on a Tuesday afternoon, and has essentially passed out drunk, just causes me to lose it.
And people wonder why I love Vietnam so much!
Toan talks to the homestay owner, and apparently there is someone else in town who can help. Toan and Hung then head off, but not before using the drunk guy’s compressor to put some, what will be temporary, air back into his tyre, while Lisa and I adjourn back to the comfort of the homestay.
Toan borrowing some air.
They return about half an hour later, now with a tyre that can do what it’s supposed to do, and we head off on attempt number two.
It’s slow going, because of the condition of the track, but that doesn’t matter, as those town sights from earlier have now been replaced with fields of tea. And now, for the first time, I’m starting to understand how picturesque they really can be.
It’s seriously beautiful, and seeing the Hmong people doing their thing, along with the occasional water buffalo spotted amongst the tea, just adds to the whole picture in front of me.
We continue on, and then as we come around a corner, a discovery is made. There’s a stream running across the ‘road’.
Doesn’t look overly deep, but having said that, it’s not completely clear as to how deep it actually is.
The homestay owner, with very little hesitation, rides through, which is good enough for Toan, so we do the same.
We enter, manage to make it across without falling in, and exit the other side. The only casualty is I now have a wet foot, but that actually just makes me wish my other foot was wet.
Yep, it’s still very hot.
Hung and Lisa also make it through, and on we go.
Until we reach another ‘river crossing’.
This one, judging by its appearance, as well as how much slower, and with slightly more difficulty, the homestay owner traversed it, makes me a little more nervous.
Toan seems to be of the same belief, and we come to a mutual agreement that it might be in both our interests if I walk this one, and Toan goes it alone.
He sets off, makes it, and I follow. Both my feet, and a fair bit of my legs, are now wet, which I am very pleased about, and like Toan, I make it to the other side unscathed.
It’s now Hung and Lisa’s turn, and like us, they will do it separately. Hung makes it across, while I watch Lisa do her thing. I love it, and she also looked to be enjoying it, too.
First stream crossing by foot.
She gets out of the stream, having remained upright the entire time, and it’s then I notice something on the ground on the other side of the water.
I point to it, asking if it’s something of hers, to which her reaction indicates it is. It’s her hat, which she dropped as she was getting off the bike. She heads back, while I attempt to take photos, which is just a little difficult to do while laughing so hard. Hung, as well as Toan, who is a little further up the road, are also enjoying what’s going on.
Retrieving what she left behind.
But it’s all good, as just as I know when she’s starting to wilt, I also know when she’s having fun, even if she is wearing a motorbike helmet.
Back on the bikes, and it’s not long before we find stream number three. But this time we upset seven or eight water buffalo who have congregated nearby. They make a hasty retreat to the very stuff that makes up part of their name, as we make our way across.
Back where they feel most comfortable.
There were even a couple of the pink variety, which, as I also did when I first saw them with Toan in 2017, Lisa thought were albino. Regardless of their colour, I love them all. So big and kind of dangerous looking, but also docile and just a little bit cute. Especially the young ones.
We continue on, coming across more and more streams, which are either done on foot, or on the bike, and it’s more fun than I ever had riding my bicycle through puddles when I was a kid.
With her hat, this time.
Eventually we reach a point where we can go no further on the bikes, with our ‘road’ now having become not much more than a goat track.
Bikes are left, and we set off on foot, into what is essentially jungle. Over bamboo, under bamboo, sometimes walking up the centre of the stream, sometimes walking beside it on a track that is often difficult to actually see.
It’s hard going, but it’s so much fun, and I can’t help but feel that we are quite possibly the luckiest people in the world right now, to be doing what we’re doing.
Jungle treking with Toan and the homestay owner.
We stop for a rest, all five of us standing in the stream, and the homestay owner talks to Toan. It seems we still have quite a way to go to find this elusive waterfall, and he wants to know if we want to push on?
The trek is starting to get really difficult, and while seeing the waterfall would be nice, I’ve already had more fun than any waterfall could provide me. It really has been a case of the journey being just as, or even more, enjoyable than the destination.
The decision is made to abandon our search, and we turn around and head back in the direction of the bikes.
We eventually get to them, and with a bit of a steep section that makes climbing difficult with two people on board, Lisa and I walk it, while the boys ride up.
Already knowing the answer, but wanting to hear it firsthand for confirmation, I ask Lisa what she thinks about what we’ve just experienced.
She’s absolutely loved it, and is blown away by what we’ve just done.
I think she now has a little more understanding about what I experienced five years ago, and why I talk about it the way I do.
Steep bit climbed, and we’re once again back on the bikes, dealing with our ‘road’, as well as the streams. But this time we count them, just out of curiosity’s sake, and by the time we reach the homestay, we have a figure of fourteen.
Yep, fourteen, and I’m not sure I’ve had more fun, nor laughed as much, while simply getting wet.
One of the fourteen on the way back.
Quick rehydration break at the homestay, and then Toan says we’re heading out again. This time to see the tea farms, and no, as it’s mere minutes away, don’t worry about putting the helmet on.
I love it, and I feel like such a local!
And sure enough, after a couple of minutes of wind in my hair, we pull up on the side of the road. There is tea visible up the side of a hill, which, you know, looks sort of alright, along with a narrow path, that straight away looks like Lisa and I might be doing on foot, while the bikes do it passengerless.
And that is exactly how it pans out, but that’s okay, as it’s not a terribly long walk.
Up we go, trying the conversation thing to take her mind off what she’s actually doing, and a minute or two later, with beads of sweat running down our backs, we reach Toan and Hung.
Those tea bushes, that looked a bit ho hum from down below, now look nothing like that from up here.
Yep, just Wow!
And this is where it gets difficult, as the camera, as usual, just doesn’t capture it the way you see it, and I just don’t possess the words to describe what I’m seeing.
Undulating hills, for as far as you can see, of a lush green, pretty ordinary and boring looking bush, as I’ve always thought of it, that looks more amazing than it probably has any right to.
While it’s nothing like the rice terraces up the incredibly steep mountains of the far North, it is still truly just as beautiful.
We spend a few minutes, while those beads of sweat congregate at the top of my shorts, trying to take it all in. As well as willing my camera to do the same.
Just a little scenic.
A carpet of tea.
A panorama shot.
Breath back, sweat going nowhere, we make our way up a narrow path through the tea, towards a group of local Hmong people who have been picking the tea, but are now sitting down enjoying a break, and something to eat.
As we approach them, we get smiles and acknowledgements, and one of the women puts her arms out as if she wants to hug me.
No problem!, and I put my arms out as I walk towards her. She quickly gets up, with a big smile on her face, and we both receive our hugs.
She laughed, as too did the others, and it all just made an already great day, even better.
It’s a little blurry, but that’s my hug lady.
We do a bit of a lap around, and through, the tea, and I’m still really struggling to comprehend its beauty.
There’s one or two pickers doing it the old fashioned way, while over in the distance there’s a group that are using a petrol powered hedger, complete with a big vacuum bag attached.
I like the way of days gone past, but I completely get the new technology.
The group we walked past, including my hug lady, seem to packing up for the day, and are now loading their big bags of tea leaves onto the back of bikes. One girl doesn’t get far though, as she waits patiently, while gently trying to coax, two rather large cows out of the way, so she can get past.
They were in no hurry to move.
Probably just getting in the way.
We eventually finish our loop and make it back to the bikes, while the sweat continues to do its thing. It is just so hot and sticky.
While there, we bump into Sharon and Peter, the English couple from the homestay. Sharon is the photographer of the family, and is in her element up here, while Peter is just along for the ride.
But at the moment, the ride doesn’t seem to be going too well. He’s been a little under the weather the last few days, after eating something that his body preferred he hadn’t. And now with this heat, well, just by looking at his face, you can clearly see it ain’t making things any easier for him.
We head back to the homestay, wind once again ruffling my flowing locks, and enjoy a very much needed shower. Suitably refreshed, and far cleaner and better smelling than I was, we head downstairs for dinner, and a beer that was needed, and wanted, much more than that shower.
Dinner is chicken, which includes the bit that sits at the very top of a chicken, along with pork, fish, some vegetables, sticky rice, as well as some multi-coloured rice that I’ve never seen before, which looks all pretty, but tastes just like normal rice.
The food is really good, but as is so often the case, we just can’t eat it all. We eventually, and regretfully, reach the stage where we can eat no more, and give up.
A few more beers, along with a rice wine, and we spend some time talking to Sharon and Peter. Well, mainly Sharon, as Peter is struggling big time.
I really do feel for him, as I’ve been where he is right now.
Peter pulls the pin around 8.00pm, and heads off to bed.
Not long after that, I come to a realisation. And that realisation is that if I so desired, I am highly unlikely to be able to pass wind in a clean, efficient, and non-embarrassing way.
I remember I’d had a couple of mild stomach cramps while we were up at the tea plantation late this afternoon, but they were so mild I never really gave them a second thought. But there is now something that I am very much aware of, and I’m both interested, as well as worried, where this all may end up.
I decide to sit on it, both figuratively, and literally, as it turns out, to see how it unfolds.
Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, it doesn’t take long to realise that waiting is no longer an option, and I make my move while I still can.
Toilet found, relief found quicker, and yep, as suspected, it was something that was far beyond anything I was ever going to be able to control.
Back downstairs for another beer or two, just in the interests of seeing if we were done, or if there was going to be a Round two, and apart from a feeling of bloatedness, as well as tiredness, things seem okay.
With the opinion being that it appears to be a one off, we end up calling it a night at around 9.00pm, and head back to our room.
No more beers, but plenty of contemplating done on our day. A day, that for the first half at least, was just a travelling day. Back of the bike stuff, in amongst Hanoi traffic, and then the usual sights of rural Vietnam.
Fun, and good see and experience, but nothing amazingly amazing.
Then we arrived. We had lunch. And we set off to see a waterfall.
And it was at that point our travelling day became one of the greatest we’ve had in Vietnam.
What we got to do, what we got to see, and what we got to experience today, is something that I will remember forever. Well, at least until I reach the stage where I can no longer remember stuff.
I said earlier, that, while traipsing through the jungle and across and up streams, I kept thinking we were the luckiest people in the world right at that moment. And I still do.
It really was an incredible day, and I know Lisa thinks the same way, and it is now a day that will be included in some the very best days we’ve ever had in Vietnam.
But being day one, I just hope we haven’t peaked too early, as trying to top it, or at least match it, over our next five days, seems like a big ask.
Will see how we go, but more importantly, just hope my body allows me to.