This was my third bicycle trip in the areas around Hanoi. Leaving the city to the north across Nhat Tan bridge is slightly less horrible than to the west along the tedious highway to Ba Vi. The newest of the Red River bridges, Cau Nhat Tan is wide enough to accommodate two wheeled and four wheeled traffic comfortably. The highway as far as the airport is also safe, with a physically segregated lane for two-wheeled traffic. The physical segregation, clear signage and immediate presence of a more than adequate six-lane highway for cars and trucks are not enough to prevent an annoying number of cars, coaches and enormous lorries thundering past the bicycles, motorbikes and electric scooters in the two-wheeler lane. I am left to speculate on the drivers’ infernal reasons – I can think of none in heaven or earth – for taking a slower, more difficult, illegal route when a fast clear highway runs right next to it. Perhaps Hanoi drivers feel nervous breaking their established habits by driving safely and legally on an intact road surface.
Nhat Tan bridge, the most pleasant way to cross the river.
The highway from the airport towards Thai Nguyen, however, is a deadly two-lane road crammed with trucks and enormous cars performing their foolish and dangerous antics. I have previously witnessed trucks grimly overtaking trucks on a two lane road as motorbikes laden with bales, pig carcasses, gigantic bonsais and live poultry pass both trucks and each other in both directions on both sides of the road, but only from the relative safety of a coach. It is not something I ever wish to see again on a bicycle.
I turn off into the rice fields as soon as possible. I’m pleasantly surprised not to suffer for my recklessness in relying on GPS and online mapping for my navigation, not yet owning a paper map. Somehow the raised concrete tracks through the rice fields have been accurately mapped and I cross without getting lost once, memorising a few turns at a time. The villages on the outskirts of Hanoi are not as pleasant or well-kept as Duong Lam or Co Loa – the atmosphere is a mixture of village and suburb – but they’re still a relief after the highway.
With a little sinking of heart, I turn back onto the main road, but this one is beautiful, rising gently through what poor little Alex would call “luscious gorgeousness”.
Dong Quan lake
I approach the turning onto what looks on the map like a road around my final destination, Ham Lon lake, which I vaguely expect from what I’ve read to lead onto a hill walking trail. I intend to leave my bike at the entrance, stomp up and down the hill and ride home.
What looks like a road on the map is actually a rough track. It looks rideable so I decide to try a little off-road riding, still expecting to arrive at a walking trail later on. I’m pleased to have the off-road tyres that have been creating so much on-road friction for me.
The trail up Ham Lon hill
At first it’s strenuous but not too hair-raising. It’s fun sweating and panting up the climbs then rushing down with tall grass whipping my face. The further I go, though, the rougher it gets, and after bouncing downhill over ridges of rock knowing I couldn’t stop if I wanted to, I decide to walk some of the trickier downhill sections.
Bike, you go on and I’ll wait here.
After crossing a rocky stream bed, seeing a steep, narrow, muddy trail in front of me, I decide the bike’s more trouble than it’s worth. I’ll walk on for a hour, then come back and ride down the way I came. Nobody could steal my bike without a helicopter, and I haven’t seen a soul since I turned onto the trail. I’m disappointed to give up, but I’ve seen plenty of lovely scenery on the way. However, after ten minutes or so the trail opens up again. My GPS says I’m well past halfway, so I imagine there will be reasonable riding back down to the road from here.
Back on a rideable trail
I walk back to the bike and manhandle it up the most difficult section. The trail is easy going from then on.
I haven’t seen or heard another person the whole way. This is probably the first time in a year, waking or sleeping, that I have not been able to either see or hear a motorbike. As I come off the trail, suburban Vietnam greets me rudely in the form of an uninviting roadside cafe with booming music and a vicious barking dog. I do quite fancy a nuoc mia (fresh sugar cane juice), but certainly not here.