Cycling to Halong Bay, Vietnam – The Stuff Of Life

We face another grungy day while biking to Halong Bay, Vietnam

This post is part of our epic series documenting 19 months of cycling through 22 countries. If you want to know more about cyling to Halong Bay, Vietnam, read on.

(Don’t miss our post covering everything you need to know before cycle touring Vietnam)

9,916 km so far.

Air, water, food, sleep. These are the things we need to survive. Today, most of them proved a little difficult for us.

The challenges are actually one of the great joys of a trip like this. We learn on a daily basis that life is full of challenges, and with a bit of ingenuity, they are not insurmountable. In fact, almost every challenge in life is surmountable.

Or Sir Mountable, if you will.

Cycling to Halong Bay: Air / Không Khí

Sometimes, all I need is the air that I breathe. Today’s bike ride to Ha Long Bay made getting a breath of fresh air a challenge.

The air was so thick today it was like being back in Shaanxi Province in China. We rode past the massive Coc Sau open-pit coal mine for roughly 30 km today, where the air was heavy, grey, and oppressive.

Gorgeous day for a ride past a coal mine, Cam Pha.

Gorgeous day for a ride past a coal mine, Cam Pha.

The town of Cam Pha is right in the midst of the coal mine, and from the town’s main roundabout you can see the mountain of mining waste rock piled high, ominously looking down on town. High levels of toxic metals can be found in the soil of rice and vegetable fields for several kilometres all around the mine. These same metals were suspended in the air we had to breathe today.

(Don’t miss: Our post about everything you need to know before visiting Vietnam)

Fortunately, we had read about the mine in advance and had our face masks ready. When we finished our ride today, Jane noticed that her mask, which she’d washed two days ago, was dirtier than it has ever been. The white inside lining was dark grey with coal dust.

At one point I stopped for a bathroom break, and noticed the water running in the gutter was thick, black, and had oil floating on top. It was essentially crude oil running downhill from the coal mine. I have no doubt that this was running straight into the sea, which was only about 800 m away.

Welcome to Ha Long Bay, arguably Vietnam’s most popular tourist attraction, where the big draw is swimming, kayaking, and boating around the karst islands.

Water / Nước

We both carry three water bottles on our bikes, and in China, every place we stayed provided a kettle for boiling tap water. We used this to fill our bottles.

This was great since we hate buying bottled water. The plastic bottles rarely find their way to a recycling depot, they are made of oil byproducts, and are incredibly destructive to our planet. It seems a crazy price to pay for a bottle of something that flows freely from the tap.

In Vietnam we aren’t sure what to do. You don’t get a kettle in your room here, and research tells us the tap water might have unsafe levels of various things like arsenic and lead in it. So, even if we had a kettle, these things would still be in the water.

The mangrove didn't seem to mind heavy metals in their water.

The mangrove didn’t seem to mind heavy metals in their water.

So far we have bought bottled water. It pains us to do it, but it seems the best of some bad options. We will be doing more research to make sure it is the right choice, but in the meantime, we need water. We need a lot of water. We expel a lot of water riding all day, and we can’t afford to get dehydrated. When we get dehydrated, we get cranky, we ride more slowly, and the next day we have a killer headache.

Sometimes, however, water isn’t all good.

It was doing that mizzle thing again all morning, which made the dirt and debris from the coal mine into a sludgy mess on the roads. Caked-on mud coated our bikes and legs. It was most unpleasant, and was making my legs itch (hello mercury and lead leaching into my body!).

Wet 'n' muddy in Vietnam.

Wet ‘n’ muddy in Vietnam.

Before we got to Ha Long, we stopped at a gas station and used their hose to wash off our bikes, panniers, bodies, and rain jackets. I really didn’t want to walk into a hotel and ask for a room looking the way we did, and I thought there was no way they’d let us bring our bikes inside unless we washed them first.

Food / Thực Phẩm

We actually stopped in Cam Pha (Coal Town) for lunch. We hadn’t realised how miserable the ride was going to be, or how unhealthy the air in town would be. But, we have to eat.

cycling to ha long bay

Things we did not eat today, but they sure smelled good.

As we rode through town, I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for the pregnant women, the children playing in the streets, the elderly people at the side of the road, and the all-female marching band, in their crisp white uniforms, playing at a military man’s funeral.

I didn’t want to stay in town any longer than necessary. These people live here. And if Vietnam’s rules are anything like China’s, they have no choice in the matter.

Jane’s note: We do acknowledge that most of these people probably earn a living at the coal mine, or providing services for the employees, so it’s a double-edged whatsit, isn’t it?

We found a cute place for lunch that was being run by several women. They were initially perplexed by our request for no meat, even though they had an altar to Buddha in the restaurant.

We told them which of their ingredients we would eat, and they made us two delicious bowls of noodles. These were served with long thin fried bread (quite like a donut) that we were meant to dip in the soup.

Jane tells me these are called quay. They were sweet, crispy, and a perfect accompaniment to the soup. Plus, I love donuts, so the excuse to have them as part of my main course was great. We even ordered a second helping.

Sleep / Ngủ

We rode to Bai Chay today, which is the tourist half of Ha Long city. Ha Long is split in two by a kilometre-long bridge. One side is the Vietnamese/local side (that’s Hon Gai) and the other side is the tourist side (that’s Bai Chay).

Bai Chay is essentially a collection of small, four-storey guest houses, a handful of large Chinese-style hotels, and lots of restaurants. There must be more than a hundred hotels here, and this being February, everything is empty. Finding an inexpensive room wasn’t going to be a problem.

The sea of guest houses and hotels in Ha Long.

The sea of guest houses and hotels in Ha Long.

Choosing one would be the challenge, because they all appear to be pretty much identical. To make it easy on ourselves, we decided to stay in the hotel Lonely Planet recommends. It is nice, has comfortable beds, and the WiFi works – sort of.

A short while ago a large, very noisy group checked in and are staying on our floor and the floor above us. Here’s hoping they also need sleep and aren’t yelling up and down the stairwell the entire night.

Challengers Of The Unknown

The challenges we face on a daily basis aren’t huge.

We have been riding for ten months now, and learning how to prepare ourselves, physically and emotionally, for the daily challenges has taken pretty much the entire trip. Each day we have to make sure our need for air, water, food, and sleep is taken care of.

Missing any one if these is enough to drive us a bit batty.

We hope that by keeping on top of these simple challenges we will be better equipped to handle whatever bigger challenges come our way. Here’s hoping we don’t have to face too many.

Soundtrack: The New Pornographers, Mass Romantic | Gord Downie And The Country Of Miracles, The Grand Bounce | Jane’s Spotify Starred tracks on random  

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  1. Comment by Cassie

    Cassie February 10, 2014 at 9:13 am

    Wow, 10 months. Amazing. Don asked me the other day if you guys have an end date in mind…?

    • Comment by Stephen

      Stephen February 10, 2014 at 6:49 pm

      Richard Buckner in your house! Pretty cool… And I suppose we do have an end date in mind, at least for this latest stage if the trip. Once we get to Bali I am going out on the road teaching yoga for a while. After that? We aren’t sure, but staying and travelling in Asia are definitely on the cards. India? Japan? Burma? Taiwan? All possibilities.

  2. Comment by Geoff Langridge

    Geoff Langridge February 10, 2014 at 7:09 am

    Air and Water: it’s a long way to Muskoka Stephen. Makes me realise how lucky we all are. . .

    • Comment by Stephen

      Stephen February 10, 2014 at 6:46 pm

      It is a long way, and I miss it and think about it all the time.

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