Friday, April 27, 2007

Day 1: Hanoi - Hoa Binh

85 KMs
"Breaking out of the city"

Last night I was given a sobering talking to from a local guy - Danny - who runs motorbike tours into the areas I'm travelling to. He showed me photos of muddied roads, hellish climbs and treacherous descents. His strong advice: don't do it. Danny was acutally a really good guy and trying to be helpful. I came across him when I passed his shopfront and entered hoping they would have a better map than the lame one I had (he did). On the basis of the chat I did two things: changed the direction of the ride and went into a state of mild panic.

Finally got moving this morning at around 10.30am, not before going to buy a jumper for Sapa. I wasn't able to find a replacement skewer end in Hanoi (lost it in transit), so the front wheel is held on by a washer and nut. Not exactly confidence inspiring. Have to remember to check it. Left in the rain this morning which is never a good start and after a few wrong turns finally got out of the city. Stopped roadside at a puncture repair station (old guy with an air compressor) to top up the tyres - 15 cents. Ended up drafting behind a guy carrying two wardrobes on the back of a motorbike for 10kms. Had some strange looks from people that I passed.

Stopped for breakfast in Hua Lac and Pho Bo (beef soup) again for probably the fourth time in three days. The old guy there also gave me a red bull - I probably looked like I needed it. The guys at the `cafe' also offered me a puff of the opium pipe they were smoking and were most upset when I refused. Back on the road traffic started to thin and scenery started to improve . The air quality isn't good and so the massive mountain peaks can barely be made out. Makes it even more daunting not being able to see what you are riding into.

Had a couple come past on a moto and we started chatting (at 30kph), which we did for 10kms. they wanted to know how old I was, whether I had children, etc. The last 30kms of the ride was reasonably challenging with a few hills, though nothing like what's up the road. Found a hotel that looks OK, and dried out my $US that were soaked with sweat. Had a wander around the fresh food market and crossed the bridge to a spot overlooking the river, celebrating night one with a couple of Bia Hanois (pictured). Amazed by the French architecture in the villages here - reminds me of northern France with a bit of price relief and a lot of agricultural machinery to contend with. My horrendous repertoire of Vietnamese words - Bia and Pho - need to be improved if I am to eat anything other than soup washed down with beer.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Day 2: Hoa Binh - Mai Chau

"Reality check"

Had visions of making it over the next pass today - another 50kms - but was absolutely shattered. Hunger flat, dehydrated and exhausted at various points of the day. Started the day with an 8km climb that felt similar to Kinglake but didn't get the reward of a similar length descent. About 55kms in I started the big climb - nearly 13kms that looked and felt like the top of Mount Hotham (little vegetation, cool and exposed).

One of the difficulties is not knowing the roads, and I was convinced half a dozen times that the next corner was the last (I was wrong five times...). Despite eating four bananas, breakfast and three litres of water I still ended up shabby. Lesson 1: eat more the night before. At least the hard work was worth it, with a great descent at the end of the day, down into the valley and a town called Mai Chau. Arranged to stay with a family in their stilt house - me and about 10 others (including an annoying baby that won't stop crying) sharing a huge rooom. Dinner, lunch and breakfast thrown in for US$10 - the lunch was sensational and hoping the rest of the menu is as good (breakfast pictured).

The weather hit 36 degrees today and impossible to stop sweating. I'm desperately trying to get more water in but I'm sick of drinking (for perhaps the first time in my life). Have a headache and prickly skin from dehydration, and relieved that I stopped when I did. On the bright side, it's Monday and I'm not at work....

Sitting at a roadside cafe where the only items for sale appear to be beer and water. I'm sure this young kid is trying to set me up with his sister. She doesn't look too keen, and her husband hasn't said much so I guess his enthusiasm is restrained. One of the things that's not possible here is peace and quiet. I intentionally came here because no one was out the front but now I've got a gaggle of people around expecting me to break into fluent Vietnamese at any moment. Not going to happen until I switch from water to beer soon.

Must have been a hard day for my watch as well - it just started leaking black fluid into the face. I couldn't understand him, but the watch repairer I found down a side street seemed to indicate the word `kaput' and read it its rites. Picked up a new one - off his wrist - it appears that watch repairers have a limited number of new items on hand....

Just sat down for a cup of tea (fitting in tea mecca in this part of the country) and finally eked out some peace and quiet. People still working in the rice paddies and I'm amazed by the resilience of these people with this back-breaking work. Feel a little guilty relaxing with a Bia Hanoi looking across the rice paddies (pictured). But only a bit.

Day 3: Mai Chau - Yen Chau

"Gorillas in the mist"

I've never had a ride with as many scenery changes as today. The climb out of Mai Chau was absolutely brutal and the first 30kms took me three hours. On the climb (up to around 1600m) it was incredibly foggy, with visibility down to 100m tops. The climb was one of the toughest I've done, with long sections at 10%. Just as I crested the climb (pictured) I ran into an English guy going the other way. He was doing the same loop in reverse, and regaled me with tales of woe and horrendous road conditions ahead (echoing Danny's sentiments). He was between tours in Afghanistan and decided a cycling tour was a way to kill four months. Spoke to him for half an hour or so before we headed our separate ways.

Got my first taste of real hill tribe culture today, seeing young girls around 12 years old leading massive water buffalo along the roadside with rifles slung over their shoulders. The traditional dress is amazing, and varies from tribe to tribe. The local women here are called Black Thai due to the distintive black robes and head scarves they wear. They look stunning as they walk along the roadside, and incredibly shy. Once I dropped out of the fog towards Moc Chau (pictured below) - a dairy farming district set up by Australians - the scenery became much more like home. The people also seemed to be more vocal, with a voice yelling `hello' from every roadside stall. I'm sure they see the odd cyclist along here but must be rare enough.

Lunch in Moc Chau was brief, as I'd been on the road for five hours already and still had 55kms to travel. The pho was great, and soon enough a crowd gathered around me hell-bent on extending my stay and spoiling my lunch. It was well meaning, but not ideal having four guys hovering around smoking a pipe while I was trying to eat. The drop out of Moc Chau was superb, but felt more like Arizona than Asia. The red rock cliffs dropped to the valley floor and took me with them. Once in the lowlands the scenery changed again. As I followed the river there were lots of Black Thai villages, with Indiana Jones style suspension bridges (pictured below) along the way. Battled a headwind for the last 20kms but bouyed by the magnificent scenery.

Found what looks to be a reasonable hotel (only one in this windswept town), showered up and went to the local market for a look. Ended up in a great beer garden - someone's back yard - drinking home brew and eating peanuts. Also getting plenty of water in as well. Did 7 hours on the bike today so feel like I've earned an ale. Options for dinner look less appealing than the lager....

Day 4: Yen Chau - Son La


Another tough day where I just couldn't get going. Wasn't helped when 5kms in I realised that I'd left my gloves behind - given what's ahead I had to go back for them - and that fact that the first climb of the day was over 7kms in baking heat. The climb was the steepest yet, with long sections at 10%. Had to stop a few times on the way up to drink and rest - legs would not respond. Once at the top heat became unbearable and I was overcooking. Stopped for lunch in Moi Chau for a great fish meal (used my new found vocab in Vietnamese so I could get something other than beef soup).

On the road again and another 4km climb (pictured). As I crested I felt very, very ordinary and with 18kms to ride I had to pull over to a roadside stall and rehydrate and ingest a Red Bull. My heart was pounding and sweat dripping off me. I ended up falling asleep in the chair, and woke up 15 or 20 minutes later with a bemused crowd around me. Never done that before. An hour or so later I climbed back on, dreading the last stretch. Apart from some hills early on, I basically got a downhill run to town which was a victory. The place that I was going to stay in Son La was being demolished - not a ringing endorsement of its quality - and ended up at the Sunrise Hotel which seems OK.

The scenery today was pretty barren and reminded me of hilly parts of Turkey. Colourless and stark. To be honest, it could have been spectacular but I wasn't taking much in due to the delerium. Forced myself to eat some more and have currently got a lemon shake in front of me. Had a failed attemp to get on the Internet (seems only games work here) and also had a cut-throat shave on the street. I'm hoping my over-heating is beard-related... Wishful thinking perhaps.

OK - it's technically impossible to get a legitimate massage in this country. Organised a masseur through the hotel and as I took my shirt off she took hers off. It was the worst massage I've ever had - she had no idea what she was doing. In the end I gave up, leaving her disappointed by the fact that there was no action and no tip. And I'm still sore....

Day 5: Son La - Tuan Giou

"The Climb"

Probably one of the most satisfying days I've had on a bike - on a par with finishing the Melbourne-Warrnambool. The day started horribly with a wrong turn out of town. I didn't discover the error until I'd ridden 15kms, meaning that by the time I had completed 30kms I was back where I started. Not what I needed for what I knew shaped up as one of the toughest days of the tour. Cursed my way out of Son La and berated myself for making such a regulation error.

Out of Son La by a couple of hundred metres and the road surface turned to broken asphalt with huge corrugations. This made the first 4.5kms at 10% extremely difficult, particularly half way up where asphalt gave way to dirt. After the first climb it was a brief downhill and then a gradual climb all the way to Tian Giou. Stopped there for lunch and had the best meal so far - stir fried vegetables, potato soup and rice. Have resorted to pointing at ingredients in the kitchen to get what I want, motioning with my hands to gesture how I want it cooked.

Following lunch it was 15kms to the bottom of the climb, where I stopped at a roadside stall to swig another 1.5 litres of water and collect a red bull for later (pictured above). Took several deep breaths before heading off into the dust. To describe the climb is difficult. The first 4.5kms were at more than 10% gradient and intermittently the road surface changed from broken rocks to thick, deep silt. I settled into a mountain bike rythmn - 6-8kph picking a path through the rocks - battling my way up. The English guy I met the other day said these roads were the worst he'd seen in years of touring (surpassing former Yugoslavia), and he had no argument from me.

Stopped about 3kms up (pictured right) to drink some more water and regroup, a ritual I would repeat three or four times to the top of the 17km beast. I thankfully had one of those rare days on the bike where I didn't really let myself fall out of a rythmn. Having to be careful to stay upright on the rocks probably contributed. The top part of the climb - which took over two hours of solid riding - was one of the most barren, souless and desolate spots I've seen. Dust everywhere, and absolutely parched. The people were also different up there, and apart from the truck drivers that were bogged in the silt I ran into some locals wandering around up there that constituted the Vietnamese version of Deliverance. The banjo people were fairly aggressive, and two separate times I was harassed for money. It's difficult to respond when you are crawling up a hill, so I tried to ignore them. A couple of times they tried to grab me but I shrugged and eventually the effort seemed beyond them. Wouldn't be surprised if they were sampling the local opium, as well as fraternising with local wildlife.

To indicate how tough the climb was, I had to stop 100 metres from the top as I didn't have the energy to complete the final stretch on that burst of energy. Once I summited I stopped at a cafe, attracting the contempt of a truck driver who looked at me like I was out of Deliverance. The descent down from 1400m was steep and brief. The remaining 10 kms into town were flat, but appalling road surfaces (pictured below). About 5kms from town a German guy that I'd spoken to the night before came past on his motorbike. He went past without even an acknowledgment and it crushed me. After what I'd just been through I wanted someone to recognise the effort, and was gutted at his failure to even nod.

Found pretty dingy accomodation for tonight and just had a great meal and cup of tea. Am encouraged by my good legs today and hope that I'm getting fitter or tougher, or both. I'm going to repeat yesterday's formula: lots of rice, lots of water and plenty of vegies. After 7 hours on the bike today I will sleep well. Sometimes it's good to ask yourself a hard question and come up with an answer. Today was one of those days.

Day 6: Tuan Giou - Dien Bien Phu

"Shaken but not stirred"

Another gruelling day made so more by the road condition and headwind than the terrain. That said, there was hardly a flat stretch all day and a monster 8km climb at the halfway mark. Set off at 7.30am and had a near catastrophe - one of the fasteners that attaches to my right pannier came off and flew into a ditch on the side of the road. Stopped to look for it and soon had a team of searchers, led by an older guy who lived nearby. Miraculously found it and even the bolt that attaches it was discovered. I gave the old guy 10,000 dong (80 cents) and he looked like he'd won the lottery.

Back on the road after a quick mechanical check, and the roads quickly turned to the broken asphalt, rocks and silt of the day before (pictured above). The roads were so bad I spent all but a few kilometres with the suspension turned on. Before the major climb I stopped for lunch (not sure what it was - didn't want to ask), and gave the two young girls that worked there a couple of kangaroo keyrings I'd bought from home. The less said about the climb the better, with a howling headwind, steep gradient and sapping heat. The dust was also unbelievable, with visibility down to zero when a truck passed (pictured below).

Yesterday's effort certainly took a toll on me, but I managed to grind my way through. Had a big moment on the descent when I hit a section of deep silt at 40kph going into a bend. Just hung on to it. Pedalled into Dien Bien Phu feeling satisfied but tired. Will be good to leave the bike in moth balls tomorrow with a rest day planned. They offer Thai massage and it looks legitimate so will give it a go. At least she kept her shirt on.

Met an Australian couple on arrival and have organised to meet them for a beer. Chris is a Vietnam veteran so will be interesting to his perspective on things. Dinner with Chris and Helena was great. They're from northern NSW and both great characters. They run Harley Davidson rallies back home. Chris' verdict on the war was that Australia was fighting on the wrong side, and he sounds like he's had a tough time since being drafted as a school teacher. He came back to Vietnam for the first time two years ago and thinks this will be his last trip - "for therapy". He also regaled me with some great stories, including his motorbike accident while on the way to a bondage club. "I looked up at the ambulance officer and knew he was wondering why all these whips and implements were scattered over the road". For dinner we had the miscellaneous hot pot - couldn't resist - and the main ingredient appeared to be snake though most other morsels were anonymous.

Day 7: Dien Bien Phu

"Rest day"

Woke up very stiff this morning and told myself to stretch - later..... Did the sights by bike and took int he battlefields, museum and historic buildings. The battle that the Vietnamese won here basically spelled the end of the French occupation and so holds real significance for the locals, as well as Vietnamese people more generally. The town itself isn't much but the history is amazing and its remoteness makes it appealling, with lots of people opting for bikes over scooters (pictured).

Day 8: Dien Bien Phu - Muong Lai

“Back in the zone”

I am now officially fit. Today was one of those rare days that looked bad on paper but actually felt like I hardly touched the pedals. Except for the two climbs of 4kms and 15kms respectively… Beautiful valley scenery as I followed the river, followed by remote mountain villages with amazing traditional dress (pictured). The only downside was the smoke which was unbelievably thick, the product of Vietnamese farming tactic of burning the hillsides to clear the land. Visibility was appalling and not sure what it is doing to my lungs.

Also had a bit of relief from the heat today, mainly because I was out early and beat the 35 degree max temperature. Managed some great potato and corn soup, washed down with a few beers, once I’d arrived at my guesthouse (best accommodation so far). Ended up spending the afternoon with French, Belgian and Irish travellers, which made for an entertaining night.

The Belgian couple (Magali and Filip) had driven from Tian Giou and said they saw an old cyclist on the road mid-afternoon. The roadworks were extensive and this guy finally turned up – to a standing ovation no less – at the guesthouse at about 8pm. He’d been riding for more than 12 hours, and turns out he is a 68-year-old Frenchman. I agreed to ride with him tomorrow because he was pretty demoralised by the past few days. Should be interesting.

Day 9: Muong Lai - Tam Duong

“The Mirco Express”

Met Mirco (pictured) in the morning as promised, and set off about 7.30am. He’s quite a sight – white hair, tiny and ungainly on his racing bike. The pattern for the day was set early on; I would press ahead on the hills and wait for him at the top. Tried to do it in a way that didn’t demoralise him, and reassured him that it was giving me a good opportunity to take some photos as well. At one stage we came upon three locals who were having trouble with their bicycle tyre (no puncture repair kit), and so we spent 20 minutes or so on the side of the road helping them fix it. A funny sight for Magali and Filip (the Belgians) as they crested the hill to see two foreigners being used as cheap labour. They stopped and gave us a bottle of cold water each – like gold – and had a quick chat before setting off again.

We stopped for lunch in a tin pot town at 65kms and attracted a fair bit of attention at the Com Pho spot. Had a passable meal and were off again, enjoying the chance to chat as we rode side by side. After encountering some navigational complexity – a fork in the road with neither sign pointing to the town we were after – we eventually hit the bottom of a 15km monster that would take us from sea level to 1100 metres. The agreement was that I would continue ahead and we would see each other at a pre-determined guesthouse. Found a good rhythm on the climb (pictured below) but it was unbelievably steep in sections. Did 9kms before stopping for a break, and figured that Mirco was probably four or so kms behind me. At the 12km mark a truck came past carrying sand, and here was Mirco hanging on to the tailgate shouting at me to get on. I was in hysterics seeing this guy covered in sand and holding on for grim death. Turns out he’d latched on to the truck at the 6km mark.

I rejoined Mirco at the top of the hill after two hours of solid effort, and we were able to pedal the remaining 15kms into town together. A long day in the saddle, and we had a beer to celebrate on the balcony of our guesthouse. The smoke today was the worst I had encountered so far and visibility was down to several hundred metres. It spoilt the view but not my mood, as I am feeling acclimatised and relaxed for the first time .

Saw some incredibly elaborate costumes on the hill tribe folk today, particularly on the last part of the climb with women returning from work. Tomorrow is the final assault to Sapa – 80 gut-busting kms to 2100m. Should be very interesting and the plan is for Mirco and I to start together, but the 26km climb should separate us. We will ride over the highest road in Vietnam to Sapa, and at this stage I’m undecided about whether to stay in Sapa or continue on to Lai Cai. It will depend on how I’m feeling, and my first impressions of Sapa.

Day 10: Tam Duong – Sapa

“Gorilla in the mist”

One of the epic days in all my travels. The short version of the day was supposed to be this: 10km climb to start, descend down to 600m and then climb the big one to Tran Tom Pass (pictured) before a 9km descent down to Sapa. The detail, however, is more revealing.

The day started brutally with a 10km climb. On the way up I had an Australian couple I’d met previously pull over to the side of the road and cheer me over the crest. They were taking a video as well, which I would love to get hold of. I re-passed them on the descent and pulled into Bin Linh for a soothing tea while I waited for Mirco. He pedalled in 20 minutes later and we shared a pot of tea in nervous anticipation of the big climb ahead. We posed for a ceremonial photo at the foot of the climb before heading off. On the way out of town I saw some Hmong Thai – probably the most elaborately dressed of all – and pulled over to say hello to a few of them before getting mobbed. I continued up the climb and it started to cool down after a few kms, at which time I stopped a mountain tribeswoman on the side of the road and offered to buy her hat. She accepted (US$4) and I was on my way with a decorative hat that would attract plenty of attention later on.

About 12kms up a couple of young kids (pictured left) decided it would be a great test to ride with me. I have to hand it to them, on ancient steeds they managed to stay with me for 3kms, with one of them in particular a real natural. When they peeled off I stopped and took a photo of them to mark their effort.

From there the really tough part of the climb kicked in and I tackled the steep sections with a reasonably good rhythm. The legs were good and I was making progress until I went through the cloudline and the mist had a buckling effect on me. I also realised I hadn’t eaten enough and had no food with me to address the hunger flat. I had a single Werthers toffee with me and forced myself to ride 3kms before I could indulge, just one of a thousand small mental games you play with yourself on a climb like that. The last 4kms were unbelievably difficult: cold, zero visibility, headwind and extremely hungry. Not knowing when the climb would finish made it even worse.

I crested the summit a full three hours from the bottom and stopped at the top to commemorate the achievement with a photo (pictured below). I was then expecting a nice 9km descent down to Sapa, but it was anything but. Instead, the driving rain ensured that the roadworks between the summit and Sapa were transformed into a brown soup. The surface was like a skating rink, and the descent took more than an hour. I was frozen, covered in mud and still hadn’t eaten. The visibility on the approach to town was down to 20 metres and I had a couple of nervous moments trying to negotiate trucks coming the other way.

The physical job done I then had the mental one of finding accommodation. I asked for the Auberge – the place the Belgians mentioned they would be staying – and found it eventually. I was devastated when the Auberge staff wouldn’t let me in due to the state of me and the bike. Shivering, emotional and physically shattered (pictured below) I was approached by a young girl offering alternative accommodation next door. I accepted and within minutes was in the hot shower thawing out, washing my gear at the same time.

Had a massive lunch of hot pot and fried rice but felt guilty that Mirco still have to come through the same stretch of road. Tried unsuccessfully to hire a car to pick Mirco up, and went to our rendezvous spot (the church) on the hour as planned. At 5pm he still wasn’t in and I started asking around at hotels whether he’s made it in. At 5.40pm there was a shout across the town square and it was Mirco – looking like I did three and a bit hours earlier. He had broken a spoke and detached his rear derailleur on the descent, rendering the bike almost useless.

Met up for dinner with Mirco, Magali and Filip for great hot pot and good conversation. We all lamented how different the hill tribe people were in Sapa. Where they had been shy and retiring in their natural environs, here they were speaking English fluently and happy to engage (and well) with westerners. The lowlight was watching two Hmong Thai women playing pool in a bar later that night. Despite this, Sapa is a beautiful looking town and will stay here for a day or so. I’ll need that time to thaw….

Day 11: Sapa - Lai Cai

“Down and out”

Supposed to be a rest day, but turned out to be anything but. The plan was to tackle the 30km descent into Lai Cai in late afternoon in time to meet the train. I spent the morning with Mirco in a mechanic’s shop trying to straighten his derailleur (reasonably successful) and eating. Was in two minds about whether to stay an extra day at my hotel (pictured below), but the atrocious weather and poor visibility made my mind up. I realised that I wouldn’t get warm if I stayed here, and so off I headed at 4pm.

It was freezing cold when I left and I couldn’t believe it when I punctured just 5kms from the summit. The puncture came at 50kph in the rain as I was entering a corner – not ideal. Infuriated, I took more than half an hour to fix the puncture on the roadside due to the tight fit on the new tyre. Frozen, I continued down the hill and the fog finally cleared just 10kms from the bottom.

I got lost in Lai Cai and ended up trying to find the train station in the dark. Finally found it, which I thought was the end of the angst, but it was just beginning. On arrival at the station they told me the 8.20pm training that I was on didn’t carry bikes, and that I would have to get on the 9pm. This was fine except they were telling me the ticket couldn’t be transferred. While I’m trying to negotiate with the station attendant (evil witch) I had two young guys hanging off me trying to scam some money from me. To make matters worse, they wouldn’t let me take my bike into the station and so I had one eye on the young scammers, one eye on my bike and trying to negotiate the ticket. Eventually to get rid of me the station master slaps down a new ticket for me on the 9pm – HARD SLEEPER. So in a few minutes I had gone from Hilton to park bench and there was nothing I could do about it.

Told the leeches to piss off, jumped back on my bike and cooled my heels in a restaurant with hot pot and beer. Hard sleeper is as it sounds: a bed of nails. Basically myself and a French cyclist were the only westerners in the carriage (suffered same fate as me). We were in a crowded cabin with eight people to a shoebox, and apparently smoking was compulsory as the urchins and desperadoes that I was sharing with seemed to have one permanently on their lips. Sat up with the French guy til 11 before tossing and turning for the remainder of the 8 hour journey.

Day 12: Hanoi - Vientiane (Laos)

“The Great Escape”

Arrived in Hanoi at 5am and navigated the 10kms to my old hotel in the dark and with an extremely poor map. Two Danish women were sitting on the steps of the Classic Hotel where my bike box was being stored. Unfortunately we had to wait there for an hour until the staff who were asleep on the floor inside could be bothered to get up. At one point a woman selling bread rolls came past and I indicated I wanted one. I then realised I only had large notes, and stupidly opened my wallet to indicate this. She reached into the wallet, grabbed a couple of 100,000VD bills and stuffed them into the sack she was carrying. I went berserk and tore the sack apart, eventually locating the bills she’d taken. The Danish women were very stern: `you naughty woman”, which was a bit of light relief. If they hadn’t been there I would have thrown her sack – and maybe her body – on to the roof. My Vietnamese tolerance by this stage was wearing very thin, and I decided that I had to get out of here as quickly as possible.

Once the hotel staff managed to rise I grabbed my bike box and ordered a cab to the airport. They charged me US$15 – and another US$10 that I apparently owed from my stay last time – and I was soon in the back of a mini-van with a roll of tape trying to secure the bike box while in transit to the airport. From there it proceeded OK, but with a couple of hitches. The good news was they could get me on a 9am flight to Laos for US$160, which I paid for on the card. Bad news was that when I went to check in she told me that I had to be re-ticketed and that she only took cash. So I had to cancel the old ticket, go the ATM and eventually get a new ticket so that I could sit on the same seat, on the same flight and for the same price. The only change was the paperwork, but I was now only 25 minutes from boarding and I still had to clear customs.

Customs took ages and I pushed my way to the front of the queue – to the chagrin of most – and listened nervously as they called my flight for boarding. When I put the bags through the scanner the toolkit I had attracted attention, and the customs official confiscated it. I could have stabbed him with it such was my mood. Ran to the gate and my bike and I were last aboard. Sitting on the plane waiting to take off I realise that I haven’t had a shower for two days, my hands are still covered in grease from the tyre change and I have mud from the knee down. My throat’s killing me, I don’t know where I’m staying and I have no Laos currency. Time to get organised.

Laos, glorious Laos. My experience since arriving is altogether different to Vietnam. Minimum fuss, noise, grief and frustration. Within two hours of arriving in the tuk-tuk (pictured above) I had had a sensational massage, a tuna baguette and found a quick release skewer to replace the one I’d lost in Vietnam. I also secured a bike box for my return to Vientiane, and established that I wouldn’t be able to find one in Luang Prabang. Booked my flight for the morning to Luang Prabang and flight from Vientiane to Saigon in 9 days time. Sitting beside the Mekong with a fruit juice it feels so good to be in Laos.

Day 13: Luang Prabang

“Up and out”

Woke up this morning in time to get myself organised before the flight. Caught up last night with an Australian guy who works as a train driver in the Queensland cane fields. He’d also done a fair bit of bike touring in Australia, so had a good chat over Mexican food.

Got the bike unpacked and took it out for a test ride – everything OK except for a broken spoke. The chances of finding someone here with a truing stand seem remote. Had dinner with Marney, a Melbourne girl I met on the plane, and the spicy chicken curry was sensational. Luang Prabang is spectacular with lots of wats (temples) and surrounded by mountains. The architecture is also great, though lots of travellers in this town to share it with. The guesthouse I’m staying in is fantastic, down a side alley away from the noise and at $10 a night a bargain.

Day 14: Luang Prabang - Pak Ou Caves - Luang Prabang

“Day trip”

Decided to ride out to the Pak Ou caves on the Mekong River today, located about 40kms north of Luang Prabang. The middle 30kms in particular were spectacular with dirt roads following the river. Arrived in a small village and arranged a boat to take me across the river to the caves (pictured right). The ride was more expensive than it should have been – I thought he was talking Kip and he said he was quoting in dollars – but the caves were great. The $4 that I paid to ride the 200m across the river was the same as people were paying to ride from Luang Prabang….

Once back in town I established that Mr Ton was the man to fix a spoke. Finally tracked him down and quickly established that the spare spokes I had bought from Australia were too long – a real pain. With some Lao ingenuity and a wrought iron truing stand he was a able to fashion a reasonable repair job. Even the spoke key he was using would have weighed several kilograms.

Later in the night I caught up with Marney and a crew of English and Irish travellers over a few beers and a game of ten pin bowling. Undecided about whether to travel out of town tomorrow or spend another day here to check out remaining wats and the museum.

Day 15: Luang Prabang

“A night at the fair”

Woke up at 10am and decided to stay put for another day. Checked out the museum and three local temples. Spent a lot of time dodging young kids with water pistols. Lao New Year is on the weekend and it’s dubbed the water festival. I kept having to dodge the pistols and buckets of water, and managed to avoid getting wet on four of the six passes I attempted. Caught up with James, an Irish guy from last night, and had a couple of fruit shakes and dinner before heading off to the local carnival. Entertaining to see the unsophisticated games that constitute a `fair’ in Laos.

James is a great guy and will be coming to Melbourne later in the year so planning to hook up then. He was inspiring me to go to India, having just spent 10 months there. Was home early, packed my gear and started to mentally prepare for what shapes up as a gruelling day tomorrow. I am about to embark on the stretch of road where there have been guerrilla attacks, and that the Australian embassy advises against travelling except in convoys. A lone bicycle rider is probably not what they had in mind when they issued the warning.

Day 16: Luang Prabang - Kiou Ka Cham

“The rollercoaster”

Woke up at 6.15am to the sound of torrential rain which finally stopped nearly two hours later. I checked out, rode to my favoured breakfast spot for banana pancakes and pedalled off in the rain. The day was a full mountain experience. The first climb was 17kms and steep (pictured), but with spectacular scenery to distract. Despite being a little under the weather with a cold, I climbed reasonably well. The other side of the mountain was a 17km descent with a resthouse at the bottom, which is where I stopped for a Coke and a rest. A strange feeling sitting there staring at the 22km mountain directly in front of me – with 1200m of vertical to deal with.

The climb was similar to the one to Sapa, though not as high or cold, and I managed a reasonable tempo for the two hours it took to tackle it. At the tope I came across a couple of cyclists from France and Belgium where we had a quick chat. Barely over the summit I was in the town of Kiou Ka Cham which was basically a glorified truck stop. Sat down to fried rice and tried to decide whether to continue the next 50kms or pull up stumps for the day. A bus pulled in at that time and an Australian guy named Felix came over to say hello. Felix is the famous Mr Pumpy – a regular Asian cyclist who has a website that I used to research this trip – and he advised me to stop for the day. The terrain was incredibly difficult ahead, he suggested, and there were lots of security checks along the road (the guerrilla attacks). I didn’t want to risk getting caught in the dark so booked into a guesthouse (pictured left), had a bucket shower and tried to get warm.

Day 17: Kiou Ka Cham - Vang Vieng


A terrible night’s sleep due to a fierce thunderstorm combining with a tin roof. It only let up at 7am, at which time I climbed out of bed, ordered a boiled egg (and got an oily omelette) and was on the road by 7.30am. I was about 15 minutes behind the couple I’d met the night before, and caught them on the first climb of the day where we swapped cameras for a photo shoot.

The scenery today was absolutely spectacular, with cloud hovering at about 1400m where we started the day. Down a steep descent we soon hit the largest climb of the day (17kms) where the Belgian guy and I went man on man up the climb. After about 6kms I eventually broke him, and I continued up the climb and that was the last I saw of them.

Today was a pretty nervous one, as the stretch of road between Kiou Ka Cham and Kasi is where most of the guerrilla problems have occurred. On the road there were clusters of guys with guns – maybe a dozen separate groups – which was a bit unnerving. I had a lump in the throat each time I passed one.

The day was completed in three sections:
- Incredibly mountainous first 50kms
- Spectacular descent in the second 50km
- A well earned and beautiful gradual drop into a karst limestone valley

Each section was extremely different, but collectively was among the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen. The only comparable scenery was that of Norway, the Faroe Islands and Canada. Unfortunately halfway through the ride the camera developed a memory card error, so the scenery was captured in my imagination only.

Enjoyed lunch at a great little spot nestled in the side of a mountain, and headed through Kasi to a great ovation from a group of schoolkids standing on the side of the road with their hands out for high fives. Apart from one climb with 40kms to go, the road was either flat or downhill all the way to Vang Vieng. I cycled into town at 4.30pm having spent over 7 hours in the saddle. Found a great guesthouse out of town, run by a friendly family and with a great garden setting.

Had Indian for dinner and a Lao massage – not the best I’ve had but not the worst – and feel better for it. The massage and room cost the same – US$4. All in all it was the best day of the trip from a riding perspective and I will remember these views for a long time. I am also secretly relieved to get through shotgun alley without succumbing to the guerrillas. At one stage a group of guys on motorbikes passed me carrying shovels and I convinced myself they were up ahead digging a grave for me. Amazing how a travel warning gets the paranoia activated.

Day 18: Vang Vieng

“Mud and a long bath”

Massive storm this morning which was good and bad: good that I didn’t have to travel today and bad that I wanted to get out and explore. Killed the first few hours of the day reading Hunter S Thompson’s Rum Diary on the balcony while the rain tumbled down.

When the rain eased I headed out to explore the spectacular caves. The safety rigour was similar to the Philippines – ie non-existent. The rain came down when I was out near the lagoon and so I ended up muddy and saturated by the time I returned to town.

I suggested to a Dutch cyclist I’d met that we should have a tube ride down the river, which we commenced about 1.30pm. Basically they drive you upstream, hand you a truck inner tube and put you in the water. On the way downstream there are about 20 bars that are trying to attract your custom – pulling you in with a large stick. Most of the bars have tarzan swings and flying foxes, which I made use of. The river was travelling slowly at the moment which gave me time to finish off my book in the shadow of massive cliffs. Floated for two and a half hours before Raphael and I climbed out of the river and hailed a tuk-tuk back to town.

Day 19: Vang Vieng - Na Nam

“Almost flat”

Penultimate day of the trip and got off to a late start after sleeping well. After muesli breakfast in town I was on the road by 9am. Felt extremely sluggish for the first 60kms where I stopped for lunch (laap soup at a truck stop) for the bargain price of 70 cents. The scenery turned from spectacular to mundane the further I got from Vang Vieng. There was not a genuine climb for the whole ride, but lots of short hills that reminded me of the approach to Kinglake.

The legs obviously hadn’t recovered from the effort of a couple of days ago, but with some food on board I started to feel stronger. I decided that rather than going directly to Vientiane I would take a detour out to the Na Nam dam and lake. The town had been recommended, and I was also keen to prolong the ride as long as I could and put some more distance between me and a return to work.

Once I turned off the main road the traffic thinned and road surface deteriorated. The road was lined by town after little town, with the mountains now far off in the distance behind me. The guidebook I’d been using was really misleading and I ended up doing 15kms more than I should have. I ended up lost in some twilight zone backwater that had a Twin Peaks feel about it. Lots of people were dancing in the streets and front yards, and I saw a succession of strange people including a cycling midget, old lady that looked like she was going to take an hour to cross the road and a young kid with grey hair. Once on the right track I pedalled over the steep hill to the town of Na Nam – a fishing village with one guesthouse. The only tourists here are local, and the guesthouse is great.

Sitting on a floating restaurant on the lake enjoying a magnificent whole fish with garlic and chilli. As the only white person in town I’m coming in for some attention, and have had a lady boy and young girl both making eyes at me. The music in this restaurant is appalling, and about 10 decibels beyond the range of the speaker system. I’m quietly contemplating my final day of cycling tomorrow. A very sad day in many ways and having met a few people on multi-month trips I feel a little cheated. The memories of pain dissipate so quickly.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Day 20: Na Nam - Vientiane

“The finale”

A day that went exactly to plan. Woke at 6.15am, had breakfast and was on the road by 6.45am. Difficult uphill start and though I felt tired, I convinced myself to enjoy the last day of cycling no matter what cropped up. A less scenic ride than I had been used to, but some nice views as I followed the Na Nam River. I as able to draft behind a scooter for 10kms, which caused much amusement for mum, dad and baby who were on board.

I came across a Belgian couple coming the other way on a tandem, en route to Mongolia, and had a brief chat. Before long I hit the outskirts of the city which is often a source of anxiety. But Vientiane is pretty contained, and I was able to follow my nose into the centre of town where I had a ceremonial photo taken under the Arch. Went back to the same guesthouse I’d stayed at previously, showered and was on my way to the cafĂ© for a baguette and several juices.

I took my bike to the cycling shop and paid him $7 to pack the bike for me. A masterful packing job ensured that my bike had more care afforded it than ever before. Wandered around Vientiane most of the afternoon but felt at a bit of a loose end. It feels strange knowing the bike’s packed and the holiday is drawing to a close. Sat down by the Mekong before heading to an upstairs balcony for dinner where I ran into Ryan and Eleanor, an English couple I’d met in Vang Vieng. There was plenty of commotion as it was Lao New Year, which meant getting wet on several occasions, particularly at the shop where I bought Sarah’s present. Before they tipped a bucket on me they had the decency to mind my wallet and camera (pictured below)…

The plan for tomorrow is an early morning walk around town, breakfast at the bakery and tuk-tuk to the airport. Turns out my flight goes through Cambodia, which is a pain, but I should have five or six hours to in Saigon to take in one last breath of Vietnam. Looking at the state of my feet, my mission is to find a pedicure in Saigon, and a shave, and a haircut, and a massage…