Day seven was our shortest ride yet, a trifling 54 kilometers from Phổ Châu to Hương Khê, all on the Hồ Chí Minh Highway.
It was another completely overcast, yet thankfully dry day.
There was little traffic on the way, and we cruised past verdant rice paddies and distant mountains.
The team absolutely crushed the day, with everybody arriving in quiet Hương Khê by 11am.
It had almost seemed too easy.
This kicked off a lovely day of relaxation.
We checked into the nicest hotel in town, had “bò kho” (which is called “sốt vang” in the north) for lunch, and bought a few cases of Huda beer to enjoy by the lake.
It was great to get a sense of what small-town life is like, where oxen pull carts full of bricks down the road and everyone is warm and welcoming.
The one thing that was seriously out of place was a sleek, black Rolls-Royce being washed at a repair shop.
A sleek, black Rolls-Royce being washed at a repair shop
That evening a few of us went for dinner at a fried rice eatery, where bottles of rice wine were produced and things devolved a bit.
Fortunately we had an even shorter ride the following day.
We departed an hour later than usual the next day under a light drizzle.
We had 53km to cover on the way to Đồng Lê, a nondescript town at a junction on the Hồ Chí Minh Highway.
The scenery along the way was spectacular, and the low clouds added an almost mythical quality to things.
There was one fairly significant climb, though the ensuing descent was actually much worse.
My brakes were terribly worn out, and on the wet road I was worried my bike would slip out from underneath me at any moment.
The most unsettling moment came when I reached the bottom of the downhill – a train just happened to be traveling along the tracks that cut across the road, so I had to screech to a complete stop after bombing down at 40kph.
A few kilometers on I encountered a dangerous traffic jam:
An entire middle school emptying into the road on their bicycles for lunch break.
Few foreigners visit this part of the country, and their reaction was uproarious – I nearly crashed into several kids while trying to give high-fives.
As I rolled through small hamlets on the way to Đồng Lê I heard people shouting:
‘Người tây! Người tây!’ (Westerner!),
calling their friends to the road to gawk at the strange people on bicycles with skinny tires.
After arriving in Đồng Lê we had a lot of time to kill, and we realized we weren’t far from Phong Nha – Kẻ Bàng National Park, home to the world’s largest cave.
Inside Phong Nha cave
The drivers of our two support vans agreed to take us there, so we piled in for the two hour drive.
We passed stunning landscapes on the way, and eventually arrived at the park, which hasn’t been completely ruined by tourism just yet.
We boarded a couple of boats that took us down a gorgeous river lined with karts and into Phong Nha cave – this isn’t the biggest in the park, but it is still pretty amazing.
To be honest though, I could’ve done without the multi-colored lighting that the park management has installed inside.
After exploring for a couple of hours we returned to the vans and headed back to Đồng Lê along a pitch-black road.
This was a great excursion after a couple of short riding days, and we were ready to take on whatever was next.