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 🙂

10/2/15: Hoah Binh to Hanoi

74km, av 18.4km/hr, max 40.4km/hr, time on bikes: 4hrs

Today is the day we’ve both been fearing/secretly looking forward to – the ride into Hanoi. The distance, 70km, is perfectly doable and the terrain is mostly flat. The great unknown is just how bad/mad the traffic will be and whether we feel safe enough to ride into the city. (Back in London planning the trip 6 months ago, we casually assumed we’d probably just “jump on a bus” at this point.)

We manage the first 60km with relative ease, cruising at an average of 20km/hr and not having any really hairy moments. There are more roadworks, of course, which makes it even dustier than normal, and this also makes for slightly more unpredictable traffic, as huge trucks and speeding buses look to avoid the temporary potholes etc, but it’s nothing too scary.

As we approach Hanoi the volume of traffic grows steadily and the million horns have by now blended into one continuous ‘hoooooooonk’. Suddenly, we’re on a 6 lane carriageway on the city limits, and we’ve been joined by approximately all of the scooters in Asia. But, weirdly, it’s not that scary once you get used to it – there’s even a dedicated cycle lane!

The trick, it seems, is to go with the flow, keep moving and always assume the most unexpected thing that looks like is about to happen, will indeed happen. The audacity of some of the scooter drivers is incredible and you can’t help but admire it.

As we approach the city centre, things get even more intense as the streets get narrower. At traffic lights there are literally hundreds of mopeds criss-crossing each other’s paths with inches to spare; add music and it would be like some beautifully choreographed Hollywood dance routine. Even though the fumes are enough to give you a headache, the general ‘order in chaos’ is truly something to witness – but even more fun to be a part of! It’s exhilarating, yes, but we actually feel less in danger here than on London’s roads, mainly due to lack of lorries and lower overall speeds.

After a good 30 minutes of the most white-knuckle city cycling we’ve ever experienced, we arrive at our Old Quarter guesthouse tired, a little overwhelmed by what just happened, but also kind of pleased that we took on the infamous Hanoi traffic and lived to tell the tale.

Man in bike on a muddy road

6-7/2/15: Na Meo to Quan Hoa

Bus to Quan Son, then 52.8km, 4hr 5 mins, av 12.9km/hr, max 39.3km/hr

After waking to the sound, this time, of pigs (there is a pig sty behind the hotel restaurant), we make our decision. Or rather, Rach’s inability to get out of bed before 8 makes our decision… bus it is.

A combination of fear of the unknown, traveller tales of thick mud, apprehension of a possible alternative route (the TL 520, described by one motorbike rider as a ‘goat track littered with dead animals’!) make the bus the most attractive option by far, despite the hefty price tag.

We’ve read warnings about the over-charging on this route, and then what do ya know, it goes and happens to us! The driver, pointing at our bikes and the roof-rack, wants 700,000 VND each, which is clearly ridiculous. We manage to get it down to a cool million in total, which is still way too much but what can you do in such situations?

The journey takes about 2.5 hrs and the road is bad – really bad, but certainly not impassible by bike. Perhaps if there’d been recent rain it would be a different matter but, from what we saw, you could definitely do this stretch on  a touring bike. It appears that the single carriageway road is being widened but, rather than do this a stretch at a time, it seems that the entire 100km or so is being worked on (or rather, not worked on very much) all at the same time.

Quan Son is a little better and nicer than Na Meo but once again we have a  bit of a ‘mare ordering food and then getting charged way more than we were expecting for food we weren’t expecting (150,000 VND for meat, rice and an omelette). Finally, for our evening meal, by being disciplined and really clear, we manage to get two bowls of noodle soup for 20,000 VND – our cheapest meal so far! We stay at a ‘Motel’ for 180,000, haggled down from 200,000 via Google Translate and a (true-ish) sob story about how the bus ripped us off and now we don’t have enough money to eat…

Next day, an early start and the ride to Quan Hoa, aka Hoi Xuan. We thought the roadworks might improve after Quan Son but if anything, they get worse. Huge stretched of road are just dirt tracks but somehow, we manage to pass through OK, with no major incidents or accidents. The hills aren’t too bad and occasionally the road is good enough to enjoy the downs. The scenery, beneath the mist and cloud that lingers all day, looks like it could be spectacular, and all day we hear constant ‘hellooo’s from people in houses, fields, and even on scooters. Everyone here has a friendly face and a welcoming smile. After a bit of a sketchy start, we’re starting to like this place!

The 50km ride is, overall, pretty great and it feels good to be riding in a new country with such friendly people, even if their approach to road construction is completely baffling. (The last few km on route 15 up to Quan Hoa are, mercifully, smooth and roadworks free.)

Quan Hoa itself, stretched out along the main road for a good couple of km, feels like a lively place. We secure lodgings at a lovely little place with private courtyard, wifi and a SOFA (bargained down from 180 to 150,000 VND just by asking nicely) and eat well, (ie: no Thit Cho, or ‘dog’ as it’s also known) at a popular local restaurant for 60,000 VND. Finally, we’re getting the hang of eating out in Vietnam!

Person on bike near a border crossing

5/2/15: Vieng Xai to Na Meo

57.5km, 4hr 10 mins, av 13.8km/hr, max 42.4km/hr

We leave our little cabin at Naxay I to the din of what sound like headless chickens squarking themselves to death. There are chickens everywhere in Laos, but there seems to be a particularly high concentration hanging out behind, and under, our cabin.

After stocking up on doughnut-based goodies at the market, we start the 57.5km ride to the Laos/Vietnam border. Skies are cloudy but rain holds off until a small mountain pass takes us up to cloud/mist level and we get drizzled on a little. The climb isn’t too arduous, but the descent feels much steeper. The road on the descent is also in poor condition which means we have to go much slower than we’d like. On the way down, we meet another cycle tourist, Ernst from Germany, who warns us of treacherous road conditions ahead in Vietnam, as well as giving us a name and number of a friend in Hanoi who might be able to put us up. Nice guy!

On the other side of the hills the landscape morphs once more into wide, flat-bottomed valleys with rice paddies. This is the first time we’ve seen such scenery; the fields, the space, the flat road, the smiling children, it’s like some kind of cycling paradise. Definitely the most fun we’ve had on two wheels so far.

We reach the border just after lunch. From the hillside before the border you can see both the Lao and Vietnam checkpoints, with flags raised. In-between, a kind of no-man’s land and a bridge over a river, which presumably marks the border.

Getting out of Laos and into Vietnam is absolutely fine, with no delays or fees to pay, just lots of friendly smiles and waves of the hand. With the minimum of fuss, we’re in Vietnam!

The whole concept of international borders is kind of strange, and here it feels really odd to walk a few hundred yards and suddenly be in a different nation, with a different language, culture and history. It also looks markedly different, straight away. Not to mince words, Na Meo is a bit of a dump. It feels messy and busy and although we get a few friendly greetings, it definitely feels like we’re being watched more. We stop at the first guesthouse we come across (maybe not the best move but sometimes the easy option is the one to go for), it’s on the right as you cycle from the border, and has a ‘hotel’ sign out front. We pay 200,000 dong for an OK room with hot water and wifi. We don’t even think to haggle.

Our first dining experience in Vietnam isn’t great. There are language barriers for sure, but we also haven’t got the hang of a) being really specific about what we want, b) making double sure we’ve been understood, and c) confirming the price before the meal, rather than after. In the end we get a plate of mystery meat, rice, 4 boiled eggs, and a bowl of cabbage. Not quite what we were after. The only consolation is that, in the general confusion caused by the mix up and us then leaving the restaurant early, we don’t end up paying for any of it.

While eating we meet another cycle tourist; he’s had a long day in the saddle coming in the other direction (on Route 217). He tells of a 10 hour day, with thick mud and lots of pushing. Route 217 is currently being widened and rebuilt and is, by all accounts, a muddy quagmire right now (he’s not the first person to tell us this – Ernst’s bike was caked in mud too, and we even heard warnings about the road when we were in Phonsovan.) This leave us with a decision to make tomorrow – risk the mud, miles and dust, or risk being ripped off by the notorious Na Meo bus drivers…