This was the hardest day of the trip so far. We didn’t go very far but there were a lot of hills and it was stinking hot . It started off innocently enough . We set off along the road to Mui Ne. It was beautiful in the early morning light and there were few people around. As we passed through the less touristy areas the locals were busy making preparations for Tết (Vietnamese New Year). Buying food and flowers from the market and cleaning the houses for the new year. In the fishing village they were just landing the catch of morning and a crowd gathered at the shore to purchase them.
A couple of kilometres out of town we reached the red sand dunes. Crowds of kids quickly surrounded each group as they got out of there buses or off their motorbikes trying to rent them pieces of lino to use to slide down the dunes. We parked at a cafe and fortunately only one kid followed is . He was perhaps 8 or 9 and very cute . He told us that he didn’t know who his father was and his mother had to get up at 5 a.m. every morning to go out and earn money to feed him and his two sisters . He had to go to work to supplement that income . When we asked how much he earned a day he only replied some days I have money some days I don’t
The dunes are spectacular expanse of sand with wind sculpted formations on a hill overlooking the edge of the bay . They are a popular attraction and crowds of Vietnamese people were gathered posing and taking photographs on the sand . Like most places in Vietnam at least where people go anyway litter was blowing across the landscape and collecting in pools wherever it was sheltered from the wind. We took a lot of photos and gave some cash to our tour guide before returning for a very overpriced and ordinary breakfast at the cafe that was looking after a bike.
Our wallets may have been lighter but unfortunately our bikes we’re not and the day was starting to heat up. As we rode on the landscape began to get dryer than my throat. This is the drive province in Vietnam and it was the heart of the dry season. Skinny cow with bones sticking out of their sides were kicking up red dust in the fields where the only pasture was a few tufts of dried grass. Most of the other fields were just red dust . And much of the land was rocky with deep valleys a eroded into it where the infrequent rains had washed away the soils exposed by overgrazing. It seems a very harsh environments to eke out a living. But with climate change it’s only likely to get harder. Dry places will on the whole tend to be much drier which combined with high temperatures will make agriculture even more challenging.
The conditions were certainly making cycling difficult not only the heat but a strong wind had picked up and it was a battle to keep going. We pulled in to the first roadside cafe we encountered for a cool drink and a breather. While we were there 3 Korean cyclists pulled up for a break too. They were two guys and one of their son and were off for a few days bike ride over the new year holiday. They were travelling very lightly and I enviously eyed the tiny backpacks strapped to the back of their bikes. They were impressed to hear we were riding to Paris and insisted on buying our drinks. The first of no doubt many generous offers we will receive on our trip. Taking a journey such as this is a wonderful way to reaffirm your belief in humanity.
By now it was lunch time so we searched out the local eatery and had a bowl of pho. After lunch we continued on our journey but it was punishing work. It was even hotter now and there was a brute of a hill to climb. It wasn’t that steep just long and Kim was wilting in the heat. The sun and the hill became too much and she was forced to push her bike up the incline. we reached the turn off for the road that cuts across to Phan Ri Cua it was dirt and looked bumpy and dusty but it cut over 20 kilometres art the journey if we went by the main road so we decided to wait for the day to cool down a little. Kim excitedly jumped into a hammock and was soon snoring away whilst I slipped refreshing sugarcane juice and sort it out some photos.
An hour or so later we set off down the track. It felt like we were somewhere in Africa a bumpy dirt road passing across a dry dusty treeless landscape with sand blowing across the road. Just to accentuate the feeling a steady stream of jeeps passed us heading to the sand dunes we could see over to our left . The track was rough and in parts the sand was too deep and we were forced stop and push the bikes. Then a little further we reached a construction site for a new road . They had just spread a layer of stones to make the surface and it was uneven making an unpleasant ride. I got a puncture probably caused by the uneven road surface and my narrow wheel.
Fortunately we had just passed the turn off for the sand dunes so there was virtually no traffic. So unlike the last puncture I didn’t have an audience this time and had soon replaced the tube and we were ready to go. A few kilometres later we diverted from the path of the road construction and the road conditions improved. It really was delightful almost no traffic save for the occasional motorbike bumping past. We road past wooded landscape and dry pastures running down to the ocean. Through tiny village whose inhabitants looked on incredulously at the two idiots riding past on bicycles. At last the road made its way down to the ocean and it was glorious riding next to their waves in the late afternoon sun. Not only was the dry landscape transformed into a golden hue by the light but Kim seemed like a different person. The tired creature battling through the blazing sun had disappeared. Suddenly her strength returned like superman when the kryptonite is removed. She’s surged ahead and I had difficulty keeping up . Just as the sun’s rays were disappearing behind us we pulled into the small town of Phan Ri.
Many people say that it’s a terrible idea to travel during Tết but i would have to disagree. Especially if you’re riding by bicycle because one of the few difficulties you are likely to encounter is trying to get a ticket for a bus or train or plane which are often booked up weeks or even months in advance buy people traveling back to their home towns to visit their families. One of the many advantages however is if you are friends of one of those self same people who have returned to their home town. It so happened that one of Kim’s friends was from Phan Ri and a few hours after arriving we were soon satiating our enormous appetites with a wonderful home cooked meal of local delicacies . It was so delicious that i had about 6 bowls of the cháo (congẹe) and generous helpings of everything else . Just what we needed after a strenuous day in the saddle and a wonderful example of Vietnamese hospitality to invite a pair of smelly cyclists into their houses and treat us like royalty.
The next day we continued northwards to and couple of challenging days due to the punishing headwind that we faced. The day started innocently enough . Our dinner host from the night before suggested we took the coastal route rather than the main road where a lot of road widening construction was making the route unpleasant. I’m certainly glad we did it was beautiful past quiet little sandy beaches and through magical woodlands where the sun’s light was playing through the gaps in the trees . Again the traffic was light and the wind had yet to appear . However that changed after we stopped for breakfast in the market of a small town . We sampled one of the local specialities small round cakes of rice that was almost like dumplings but had no filling . They were served with some fish in fish sauce and some really stinky shrimp sauce it was delicious .
By this time the wind had picked up strongly and it was a battle to make much headway up the hill. At least it was heartening to see something that was benefiting from the wind. As we crested the rise we could see one of the few wind farms in Vietnam. Vietnam actually has the best wind power resources in southeast Asia and as well as being the driest this province is also the windiest in Vietnam. But this was the first wind farm I had seen in so far . It was great to see one of the power supplies for the future being deployed here. I find a certain beauty to the simplicity and elegance of their structures. With a little more foresight this region could be transformed into the energy generating powerhouse of Vietnam taking advantage of the conditions which make agriculture so marginal the plentiful sunshine and also the wind to create clean plentiful renewable energy.
However despite the potential there are only 2 wind farms with more than 3 turbines in the whole of Vietnam. The blame for this can be laid squarely government policy . The price at which the state utility mast buy wind power has been set at 7.8 cents per kwh. Vietnam has some of the lowest electricity prices in the world. Even taking into account the Viet name environment protection fund subsidy of 1 cent per kwh the price is still 1.5 cents more expensive than the current market price for electricity . However in order to attract investment in wind power the minimum price needs to be 10 cents per kilowatt hour. The government hopes to produce around 1 percent of its power requirements through wind power by 2020 2.4 percent by 2030 . However without changing the pricing regime it’s difficult to see how it can achieve even these very modest targets.
Later that day the realities of Vietnam’s energy strategy were depressingly revealed in the form of the red and white striped smokestack of the van tan thermal power plant belching toxic coal fumes into the clear blue skies. All around construction was in progress for the next phase of the project which when completed will have a combined capacity of more than 5600 MW. All of which is part of the government’s long term energy strategy of building 53 new coal fired power plants by 2030.
I am struggling to find the terms to accurately describe this strategy although the words lunacy and suicidal spring to mind. Coal is the dirtiest fuel that there is and is responsible for 26 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Pollution from coal plants also poses significant health risks to those living in the nearby environment. As power stations have a lifespan of 40 years or more those plants being built today will still be spewing pollution into the atmosphere by midcentury. Yet if we have to have any chance of stopping runaway climate change emissions have to be approaching zero by then. So either the power plants become redundant or most of life on earth will be.
Vietnam is one of the countries most at risk from climate change. Its very existence is dependent upon the world turning away from coal yet its own energy strategy is building 50 more coal plants. Now you could argue that Vietnam is a poor country and it needs to develop but climate change will have an even greater impact on Vietnam’s development than the availability of cheap energy. A study led by MIT economists found that “the median poor country’s income will be about 50 percent lower than it would be had there been no climate change.” And that was based on a 3-degree C warming by 2100, about half the warming we are currently on target to achieve. In fact it is likely to be much worse for Vietnam . Climate change directly threatens areas which account for the majority of the countries agricultural production, are home to more than 30 million people and some of the most valuable real estate in the land. Climate change could precipitate the collapse of the Vietnamese economy. It would seem sensible to me that Vietnam because of its vulnerabilities should take the lead in creating a low emissions economy. The cost of renewable energy sources is falling rapidly and within a few years they will be on parity with the cost of constructing fossil fuel plants. Vietnam has great wind and solar resources waiting to be tapped. It is also in the enviable position of having abundant hydroelectricity. This can help it circumvent one of the challenges of renewable energy namely that the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow all the time. Solar power can be used to provide electricity during the day when demand is high and then at night when the demand is less any shortfall in supply can be made up with hydroelectricity. Vietnam can hardly expect the rest of the world to save it from climate disaster whilst continue with business as usual. If it wants to have a future it must take the lead in creating that future.
All these thoughts were going through my mind as we battled on against the wind under the blazing sun. That morning we’d reached highway 1 which we had been studiously avoiding for the first week of the trip. However it was new year’s eve and there was hardly any traffic on the road it seemed like most of the trucks had already headed home for new year . And on the road north of Phan Ri there isn’t really that much so there wasn’t even much motorbike traffic. That left only the buses to contend with flying past with their angry horns. However it wasn’t nearly as bad as I imagined it would be.
Kim was struggling again with the heat so we pulled up into a rest area for some lunch and an extended break.
Whilst we were eating the Korean cyclists went past again. We must have started earlier than them in the morning I popped out to say hello. Later that afternoon we caught up with them again as they were struggling against the wind which had grown even stronger. It was with some relief that we reached phan rang . We had decided to break our journey there as it is a sizable town and it being new year’s eve we weren’t sure what other places up the road would be open. We selected for us at least a very up market hotel and then went out to purchase some provisions for the next day as we feared that there might not be much open on new year’s day.