2/3/15: Dak Glei to Ngoc Hoi (Plei Kan)

52.7km, av 15.5km/hr, max 46.1km/hr, time on bikes: 3hr 23 mins

The next stretch, through the Central Highlands, looks (on Google maps at least) a little kinder on the legs, but we’re not taking anything for granted. We’ve seen on some blogs that people have cycled right through from Kham Duc to Ngoc Hoi (over 100km, up and down all the way) but we’re of the opinion that these people are mentalists. Why kill yourself rushing it?!

Today is also, if everything goes as planned, our last day of cycling in Vietnam, so we want to take it slowly and savour it.

After leaving our friendly little guesthouse, Gia Hung, we have breakfast a few doors down. As well as the standard noodle soup, we are showered with almost more complimentary confectionary than we can carry. It’s the first of many acts of random kindness today, and it sets us up for a great day. We love you, Vietnam!

The terrain is, as they, say, “undulating” all the way. There are loads of downhills and sometimes, when you’re lucky, the momentum carries you all the way up the next bit of Up. It doesn’t get much better when that happens! There are plenty of other times, of course, when momentum only gets you so far, and then you’re back to peddling uphill, going nowhere fast.

The road, in fantastic condition, follows the winding Dak Po Ko river, which is crossed by several rickety Indiana Jones style bridges. We don’t dare cycle across them, even though the locals think nothing of crossing by motorbike. Apart from the odd coach, the road is pretty quiet too, and we enjoy a morning whizzing through this beautiful countryside, stopping only for photos and lollies!

Some time before lunch, we call in at a small market village to stock up on fresh produce but, after some good natured haggling over the cost of some citrus fruits, the shop keeper suddenly becomes very friendly and asks us to take her photo. Then, before we know what’s happening, we’ve been whisked into their living room and are enjoying a vodka toast and a snack of sesame seeds and other miscellaneous sweet treats.

Communication isn’t easy but hopefully we just about manage to express our gratitude, even if a vodka shot before lunch isn’t exactly what a hot, sweaty cyclist needs (oh, to see a nice cold can of coke instead..!)

We bid a hasty farewell before a second round can be poured, and then lunch (Laughing Cow, crackers, random fruit) in a rubber plantation just off the main road. The plantation is kind of weird in that the forest feels totally dead, with almost nothing on the forest floor, and a really flimsy single layer of canopy. It’s sad to think of the virgin forest that has been felled to make way for the plantation, but no different to what we did to our country many centuries ago. That’s economics for you.

All day we hear friendly yells of encouragement and greeting from the Vietnamese people; sometimes it’s hard to know where the yell has come from so we just respond with a ding of the bell and an equally loud ‘helloooo’. We’ll miss this.

Into Ngoc Hoi nice and early, we do our usual thing of cycling around for ages in the afternoon heat trying to find a nice, cheap place to stay. We eventually settle on the Hong Dong Hotel (we think – forgot to write it down!) on the main drag, opposite the market, where a cute little room with shared bathroom costs 150,000 VND.

After sourcing some local bargain baguettes, we enlist the help of the receptionist to find us someone to drive us into Laos tomorrow, and to change some currency. She delivers on both, with Laos kip and US dollars exchanged at an honest rate, and a lift to Attapeu fixed for 300,000 VND (including bikes) at 8am tomorrow. Result!

Then, as if our last day in Vietnam couldn’t get any better, we enjoy a seriously tasty meal in a local restaurant, with beer, for 70,000 VND (less than 3 UK pounds).

All in all, we’ve loved the sights (spectacular!), sounds (karaoke!) and smells (all sorts!) of Vietnam more than we ever expected but, more than anything, the kindness and friendliness of the people (once out of Na Meo, at least) is what we’ll remember most fondly.

Thanks Vietnam, you’ve been super good to us, and thanks for not killing us on your often crazy roads 🙂

1/3/15: Kham Duc to Dak Glei

58km, av 12.7km, max 56.2km/hr, time on bikes: 4hr 33 mins

From what we’ve read about this section, today is going to be a hard old slog through the Central Highlands, so we set the alarm *really* early for us (6am!!) and are on the road by 8.15am, after a breakfast of champions: omelette, laughing cow cheese on bread, coffee, and, er, a weird tasting glow in the dark strawberry milkshake.

The first 20km or so aren’t too bad, with lots of up and down, but nothing out of the ordinary. The road is good, so good in fact that coaches seem to enjoy putting their foot down. They take those corners so fast… maybe too fast: somewhere along the way we see the charred remains of a completely burnt out double-decker just sat there on the road. There are no clues as to what happened (engine fire? arson?) or how long ago, but you just hope everyone on board got out alive.

At about 20km we stop for a banana break. Only the bananas we bought in the dark the night before (actually, she gave us them for free, after trying to persuade us not to take them at all!) turn out not to be bananas, or at least completely unripe. Schoolboy error, and a crushing roadside disappointment.

The next 14km or so are hard. Those pesky 10% inclines just keep on coming, some of them for 500m or more at a time, and in between it feels like there are even steeper bits that they’ve just not had the heart to sign-post. The heat is tough but, thankfully, as we’re higher up and in the mountains, there’s more cloud cover and a fresh breeze. The payoff is the spectacular mountain scenery and fresh air. Hanoi this is not.

Salvation arrives at 1pm in the form of a roadside cafe (the first we’ve seen since leaving Kham Duc) strategically located opposite another impressive, although sadly inaccessible, waterfall, around 34km into our day, at around 1,100 metres altitude.

We lunch on Pho and coke, plus some oranges donated by a kind man who also asks us to pose in a photo with him. This has happened a few times in Vietnam now, our favourite being yesterday when a group of teenagers on mopeds stopped us as we slogged our way up another hill for a red-faced picture with them, before speeding off laughing!

After lunch it’s a little easier; there’s a bit more Up to contend with, aided by The Stone Roses (“she’s a waterfall…”) and Teleman (“I’m not in control…”) but thankfully, the last 10 to 12km are all downhill, and what a downhill it is; with a good road and some decent straight bits, I accidentally smash the 50km/hr mark, recording a maximum of 56.2km/hr. (Don’t worry mum, I tested my breaks and had a helmet on!) It is quite amazing/scary/fun how quickly you accelerate down a 10% hill with a fully loaded bike.

We arrive in Dak Glei around 4pm, so not too shabby, although that early start came in useful. There are about four guesthouses in town and, while we debate the pros and cons of each, the woman at the last one we see reduces her price from 150,000 to 100,000 VND. Who needs to haggle when you can just procrastinate?!

Overall, the day was tough, but not impossible. We sweated buckets, we drank loads, we gained about 1,000m in height (and then lost it again), but we managed it. If you’re going this way too, enjoy!