4/3/15: Attapeu to Sekong

81.7km, av 18.3km/hr, max 51.9km/hr, time on bikes: 4hr 26 mins

Today is one of our more successful days on the road, starting with a WINNING noodle soup (return of the fried garlic – yum!) and the procurement of our fave and much missed dry donuts.

The first part of the day hands us some nice downhills and perhaps even a bit of a tailwind, and for the first time on this tour we’re averaging ABOVE 20km hr and spend most of the day in the top cog! (Sorry, that’s about as technical as this is gonna get.) The landscape could be spectacular, with a range of hills to the left and a river about 1km to our right, but it’s so hazy all day that we can’t really see it clearly. That and the fact we’re whizzing by so fast, obviously.

The cheerful ‘helloooo’s of Vietnam have been replaced by the slightly more shy ‘sabadee’, but every now and then a hoard of kids will absolutely yell their hearts out until we’re out of sight, or hearing range, whichever comes first.

With our speedy progress and early start, we’ve covered around 50km north on Route 1 by the time we’re ready for lunch, and then a few km later, we chance upon a sign for Tad Hua Khone waterfall, just a km off the main road (immediately after the large river bridge). This turns out to be a fantastic place to lunch, as well as sample Laos coffee, which is grown everywhere in this region (the Bolaven Plateau). The falls themselves aren’t particuarly spectacular, but this is because, we learn from the young guy who has set up the coffee shop (only open since 14 Feb), there is a hydro electric power station upstream which reduces the river flow until 3pm each day. Nevertheless, there’s still a refreshing rock pool to swim in, and the local kids are chucking them selves into the water off nearby rocks with plenty of enthusiasm.

After a light lunch, including the leftover bean salad that is too spicy for a Dutch girl to eat, so she donates it to us, but it’s sadly also too spicy for us to eat too (the guy protests “But I only used one chili!”)

We’re then on our way, stopping only for a photo opportunity at a sign for Ban (town) Dan… me yelling as if I am Alan Partridge shouting ‘DAN’… er, this may be lost on non-UK readers or anyone unfamilar with Alan Partridge.

We get into Sekong with plenty of time to spare, but as usual skip the first guesthouse we come across (Phonmani), cycle another 5km or so checking out almost all the others, and then return to Phonmani and staying there in a decent upstairs room with balcony (50,000 kip, hot water, no wifi). It’s owned by a lovely Vietnamese couple, we virtually have the place to ourselves, and they even cook us a great veggie meal for 30,000 Kip. They are so laid back they don’t even bother with room keys at this place – when I ask he just waves as if to say, “the place is empty, who needs keys?!”

3/3/15: Ngoc Hoi (Plei Can), Vietnam to Attapeu, Laos

So, the plan today is to get into Laos. We only have three days left on our visa, so we’re really hoping the plan works.

Once again, the border crossing we’ve chosen is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, especially on the Laos side, where there’s 50km of national park before you hit anything remotely resembling civilisation. Our research has uncovered little in the way of people cycling this stretch, and to cycle right through to Attapeu (120km west) looks very ambitious indeed, especially given the remoteness and hilly terrain in the national park.

So instead, we opt for transport. We’re ready and waiting, as instructed, at 8am, for the ‘minibus’ to turn up. Instead of an official minibus, which would have costed 400,000 VND, we are getting on a Ford Transit van doing a border crossing run to take supplies of petrol, liquid gas and other goods into Laos.

When we climb in and get moving, at about 9.45am (the driver clearly operates on Laos time) we have the van to ourselves, but we feel sure it won’t last. We’re right… by the time we finally leave Ngoc Hoi there are no less than 17 people crammed into the front three rows of seats (the rest of the space taken up by cargo), including five guys squeezed into the driver’s seating area alone! It’s a minor miracle the van even moves, but move it does, all the way to the border.

Crossing into Laos is just fine. We have to pay our visa fee (35 US dollars each) all over again, and a small ‘tourist’ fee of about 12,000 Kip, which seems cheeky, but what can you do? It takes about 15 minutes, and thankfully our 15 travelling companions wait for us patiently.

We then bump our way through the national park to the sound of Vietpop (with some distinctly Pet Shop Boys and Abba influences) blaring out, as the driver chain smokes and chucks his fag ends into the tinder-dry forest. He has an unnerving habit of taking blind corners on the wrong side of the road, but thankfully we don’t meet any of the huge timber-carrying juggernauts coming the other way. It’s sad to see all the timber waiting at the border to cross into Vietnam; you can only hope Laos’ forests are being well managed and corruption/lure of the dollar isn’t getting the better of those in charge of protecting it.

At the edge of the protected area, maybe 50km into Laos, there’s a small frontier settlement, not marked on any maps. If you’re thinking of cycling this way, there is a small guesthouse here (and another, about 20km further on towards Attapeu), and there are also a couple of small food shops inside the protected area itself.

This is where all the Vietnamese guys get off. We assume they must be in the logging business. The van then parks up and the driver signals for us to get out and wait in a shaded area with some mats to sit on. This we obediantly do, while the van then drives into a nearby courtyard, and a gate is shut and locked behind it. We then wait, and wait, and wait a bit more while bemused locals gawp at us, although to be fair, they’re all friendly. After around two hours, the van emerges, with most of its old cargo now gone and replaced with new cargo to take back to Vietnam.  After a quick lunch in a small Vietnamese style eat shop (rice with food on top), we’re finally on our way again.

Without his heavy load of passengers and petrol, the driver puts his foot down, and we bomb along the mostly empty roads. It’s hard to know what speed we’re going at, but it definitely feels too fast given the likelihood of cows, dogs and other animals wandering onto the road. The van then stops again in a small place we assume to be Attapeu but, according to our GPS and maps.me app, we’re still 13km away. It turns out this is as far as the van is going, and we have to cycle the rest. We’re hardly surprised (welcome back to Laos!) and, given the dangerous speed he was going at, we’re kind of relieved to be able to cycle the last bit. It’s dead flat and only takes us around half an hour, meaning we finally role into Attapeu at about 4pm – just a little bit later than expected!

It’s a bigger town than we expected and, after checking out some of the accommodation options near the river, we head back to the main road and take a room in a small, family-run guesthouse opposite the not-quite-finished shopping centre for 60,000 Kip, with no internet and, as it turns out, no hot water either, but it’s now so hot this isn’t such an issue. Our bikes are stored in the family’s front room so, for once, we don’t feel the need to lock them together.

For some reason we both feel knackered, despite only cycling 13km. The main thing is that we’ve made it back into Laos, and it’s just as we remember it; friendly, a little quieter than Vietnam, and with better food than it’s given credit for. We’ve missed you, Laos (and yes, we were two-timing you with Vietnam!)

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 🙂

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!

18/1/15: Xiang Ngeun to Kiou Ka Cham

18/1/15: Xiang Ngeun to Kiou Ka Cham, alt 1400m (52.8km, av. 9.5km/hr, max 42.9km/hr, time on bikes: 5hr 32mins)

And so it begins… After breakfast at ‘Coffee in Love’, the road out of Xiang Ngeun is hard… An ascent of over 1,000 vertical metres (over 15km),  taking us into our first real rural hilltop villages. Then there’s a thrilling 30 minutes of downhill to Nam Ming, where we lunch. All we can find is fish on a stick and some pot noodle, but it definitely does the trick. Then it’s uphill all the way again, this time rising 934 vertical metres to Kiou Ka Cham. It’s never especially steep, but it’s a long  (20km), hard slog.

Somewhere along the way we meet Rob, riding a Surly Longhaul Trucky (jealous!) Rob is a pedicab driver from Washington DC who started the day in Luang Prabang. He overtakes us, of course, but we meet him again later in the day. We also spot our first crashed lorry (looks like it’s been there a while), and invent the ‘coach, truck, lorry’ game – guess the approaching vehicle by the sound of its spluttering engine. Unsurprisingly, much of the day is spent arguing the difference between a truck and a lorry.

We make KKC before dusk, just (Rob is starting to get worried!) where you can choose from three guesthouses; all roughly similar – basic, shared bathrooms, but OK for 50,000 kip. We dine with Rob, plus three people from Manchester who are headed the other way. Two are competitive velodrome riders – we’re starting to wonder if all cycle tourists are way fitter and more experienced than we are!

There’s not much else to do after dark, and it’s cold, so we head to sleep early after what’s been a hard day overall…

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.