man jumping

22-23/2/15: From Hue to Hoi An, via Lang Co and Hai Van pass

85.9km (5.9km looking for accommodation!), av 16.4, max 47.1km, time on bikes: 5hrs 13 mins

And so it begins, again. After yesterday’s 39km warm-up ride to Thuan An beach, on Sunday we set off south, heading towards Hoi An.

We’re a little apprehensive about cycling on the infamous 2,000km Route 1, but there’s no way around it. The previous evening, at Cafe on Thu Wheels, we met a Swiss guy who says the trains south are booked up until March (Tet returnees), and we’d really hate to do this leg of the trip by bus, so instead we decide to go for it.

We plan the day’s route via the coast as much as possible, via Route 10A and 10B to Vinh Thanh, and then along the perninsular and over a vast bridge on Route 577 until it eventually, inevitably, joins with Route 1A.

The first part of the journey is really great cycling, firstly through rice fields, and then through a bizarre landscape of ‘dunes and tombs’ (as Lonely Planet describes it) – mile upon mile of family tombs. It’s mostly flat, the road is paved, and it’s always interesting. Although close to the sea, we don’t catch a glimpse of it today until the majestic, empty bridge crossing over to the more hilly Other Side.

We then start to see km marker stones counting down to the dreaded ROUTE 1. After waiting for a train to cross the level crossing (while eating what we joke may be our last meal, a whole packet of Crema-O biscuits – what a send off!) we don our helmets then hang a left and join the highway. Immediately, it starts climbing and the hard shoulder deserts us, but the traffic isn’t *too* bad and pretty soon we’re feeling OK about the whole thing.

As usual, there’s everything from kids on bicycles to juggernauts and kamakazee coaches on the road, so we feel at least like we’re not an oddity or danger on the road, as we definitely would if you attempted to cycle on, say, the M25.

After about 20km of this, mostly against a stiff headwind, we make it in one piece to Lang Co, a small but usefully located coastal strip of a town just before the Hai Van pass, with a pretty lake on one side, and a golden beach on the other. In other words, a perfect place to overnight.

There are lots of accommodation options and, predictably, we go for the cheapest we can find – essentially, a room in someone’s house, for 150,000 VND. The guy (a photographer) is very friendly though, and gives us each a face mask for the next leg of our journey…

We have a (for us) relatively early start and, after a peppery bowl of Pho (noodle soup) for breakfast, we’re on our way by about 10am. The Hai Van pass is said to mark the climatic border between North and South Vietnam, and also has a military history. More recently, Top Gear apparently labelled the coastal hill pass one of the most scenic in Vietnam, if not the world. There’s a spectacular railway pass too, but sadly no-one in Vietnam’s tourism department has yet had the idea of running tourist trains between Hue and Danang to make the most of it. Happily, there’s now a road tunnel too, which takes most of the traffic, leaving just scooters, mad cyclists and tourist buses on the pass itself.

The climb out of Lang Co is steady but not too steep. There are sections of 8% inclines, along with some flatter bits and, although it is hard work, it’s not impossible and we don’t have to walk any of it, despite the heat. As we go up, the view of Lang Co bay unfolds spectacularly, as motorbikes go whizzing past, many riders yelling ‘hello’ or giving the peace symbol which the kids just can’t get enough of here.

A tactical coke break just before the summit allows us to arrive at the top looking relatively fresh-faced. We even have enough water on board not to have to buy any from the expensive vendors stationed there. The view from the top is pretty good, but improves still further as we head away from all the tourist buses and down the other side. It really is spectacular, especially on this cloud-free day, stretching all the way to Da Nang. The descent, at times marked 10%, is fantastic.

Before we know it we are riding alongside a white sandy beach, just ahead of Da Nang, and the temptation to take a dip is too great to resist. We park up our bikes beneath a bemused lifeguard and run into the calm, azure sea in our cycling gear! Too good!!

Apart from a quick pause for lunch, we cruise through Da Nang, which looks very modern and plush, but without too much in the way of soul. It’s a fast growing city and is establishing itself as a luxury beach resort destination, which means a lot of the coastline is off limits to commoners like us.

We also cruise past Marble Mountain (pausing only for a quick photo of the marble monstrosities on sale), apparently a popular tourist attraction. Where we do pause for much longer is a super-cute bike cafe we chance upon on the Trurong Sa road, called Le Velo. It’s front terrace is adorned with bikes and even tables made out of bike wheels, so we have to stop! We get chatting to the owner, Hue Le, who shares her ‘cycling manifesto’ with us – to get more people, especially women, cycling in Vietnam. We’re hugely impressed, plus the smoothies are great too! Hue interviews us about our travels, so it will be fun, or probably cringeworthy, to see how that turns out on YouTube…

From Le Velo, it’s about another 10km of flat, straight road to Hoi An, and it’s starting to¬†get dark (thanks to all the unplanned stops!) We head into town and are shocked at the accommodation prices offered to us, and in US dollars all of a sudden. $20 for a dingy room, sir?!? No way are we paying that! We eventually take a room above a cafe for $10. The hot water’s broken but we’re so hot, and the room’s so hot, that we don’t even care, because it’s been such a great day’s cycling.

19/1/15: Kiou Ka Cham to Phou Khoun

19/1/15: Kiou Ka Cham to Phou Khoun, alt 1350m (51km, av 12km/hr, max 44.7km/hr, time on bikes: 4hr 17mins)

An easier day, although there are still some steep bits…

We start with a protein-filled omelette breakfast, then after a chilly downhill start (and stops for adding/removing layers), it’s up and down all day. At one point, slightly defeated by a hill, we get off to push, and out of nowhere some children appear and give us flowers to decorate our bikes, and then a push up the hill!

We have a late lunch (not sure where), and the locals are spending the afternoon knocking back Beer Lao. Despite our best protests, they insist we have one too. Then it’s back on the bikes…

Phou Khoun is a small market town, where route 7 meets route 13. There are three guesthouses in the centre, where 60,000 gets you a room with no hot water or wifi, 70 gets you hot water but no wifi, and 80 gets you hot water, wifi and other guests with crying kids all getting up and leaving at 6am. At dinner (noodles) we meet an Estonian/Italian couple who are motorbiking to Phonsavan. AKA cheating!

Slow boat to Luang Prabang, and on to Xiang Ngeun

We overnight in Chiang Khong in a basic but cheap (299 bhat) attic room overlooking the Mekong. There can be few better incentives to get up early than to watch the sun rise over the Mekong while breakfasting in the company of monks; we are on the bikes by 7.45 and at the border crossing Friendship Bridge IV, 10km south of the town, by 8.30am.

Disappointingly, you’re not allowed to cross the bridge on your bike. No one is able to tell us why (we hear that it’s to stop suicidal Thai pedestrians from jumping off after losing everything at Laos casinos) so we have to put the bikes on the bus (for an extra 100 bhat) for the 5 minute drive across – during which the driver switches from the left to the right side of the road. It all seems a little ridiculous, but at least with bikes we can avoid the tuk-tuk fares for the 10km to and from the bridge on both the Laos and Thai side. The bridge’s location may not be tourist friendly but apparently this is because in the future it’s expected that there will be lots of road freight using it, and they don’t want HGV’s clogging up the town centres.

Getting through the border controls on the Laos side isn’t too time consuming (about 45 minutes) and we pay our visa fees in US dollars. We then speed-cycle to Houay Say (Houayxa) in a mad dash to get to the slow boat launch for 10.30am. A word of advice here: don’t rush. In ‘Laos time’ nothing leaves on time. We buy our tickets, buy food and beer (our first Beer Lao), take photos and still the boat doesn’t leave til after midday. Before we leave they try and squeeze an extra 20 or more people onto the boat. This is something we’ve read about in the guidebook, and it seems others have too as a spontaneous protest erupts; “Get another boat” people start shouting, and eventually the group are ordered onto a second boat, to cheers all round.

The two day trip is pretty mesmerising. The scenery doesn’t change much, but it doesn’t have to. Mile upon mile of lush mountain vegetation, and occasional tiny riverside communities, as the huge, powerful Mekong surges beneath your feet. A word of warning though: wrap up warm (in January at least). It may be a slow boat but you’ll feel the wind, especially in the morning on day two.

The time flies by, aided by Beer Lao, reading and card games. The seats are comfy too – not the hard benches we’d read about, but old car seats! We overnight in Pak Beng, a strange one-street town which is invaded each evening by the slow boat arrivals, all in search of food and a place to sleep. We resist booking in advance on the boat (for 115,000 kip) and find a decent room towards the top of the hill for a more reasonable 80,000 kip.

Day two is more of the same. We’re told to arrive at the boat at 8am but we don’t leave until well after 9. It’s a long journey but a great way to travel. The only surprise is that when we arrive in Luang Prubang we don’t actually arrive. The boat stops about 10km from town and a fleet of tuk-tuks await. This isn’t mentioned in the guidebooks so appears to be a recent development/scam. As we’re on the bikes we’re not affected (although we do arrive in LP at dusk, and after the tuk-tuks, meaning the best guesthouses are already full). We also have to pay extra for taking the bikes on the roof of the boat. They want 100 bhat per bike, per day, but we argue this down to 50 bhat per bike per day – still too much for what is basically luggage.

We stay in two guesthouses close to the Mekong and National Museum, for 120,000 and then 100,000 kip per night (at the very relaxed and friendly Nok Noy). This appears to be the going rate, many places are full, and attempts to haggle are met with polite refusals. LP is a lovely place to wander, the food is great (we ate at an all you can eat veggie buffet at the night market for 10,000 kip – the long tables are a great place to chat to fellow travellers), there are bars (we quite liked hanging at Utopia) and there are some great day trips. We hear about the waterfalls at Kuang Si, a 30km ride away, and decide to check them out the next day. It’s a fantastic ride out (overtaken by countless tuk-tuks, minivans and scooters, but we don’t mind) and the waterfalls do not disappoint – they are spectacular and the swimming is great too. We spend a little too long here in fact, and only just make it back to LP before dusk.

Before we leave LP we try and find a bike mechanic for one final check up before we start riding in Laos. Considering the amount of kids on bikes cycling to school, you’d think this would be easy, but when we enquire we’re met with confusion and the explanation that “people fix their own bikes”. We eventually find an American guy, Noah, who runs a bike hire shop and workshop , and he gives both our bikes a check over, and trues our wheels, for a reasonable 70,000 kip.

Finally, we’re good to go and on Saturday afternoon we start #cycletouring in Laos, taking Route 13 south to Xiang Ngeun, an easy 25km which we do in 1hr 37, averaging 15.5km/hr. We stop in the first guesthouse we see, by the bridge, which is fine, but if you’re doing this route there is a second guesthouse next door to the Khankham Restaurant (‘Coffee in Love’) through the town and up the hill, which has stunning views and looks much nicer.