I met my bike tour companion, a Thai woman in her mid 50s named Noy, through my father in the little town in northeastern Thailand where she was born and raised, and he likes to spend his winters. On our first meeting, she invited me to join her on a bike tour trip she had been planning. She has 10 years of bike touring experience, including solo tours of Japan, Norway and many more trips of duo touring with her former bike touring partner, a man from the US she had met by chance on a trip to China. Though I have a long-standing all-season relationship with my bike, I had never done a bike tour before, and had already been thinking of exploring Laos and Vietnam while over here in Asia. The bike trip seemed to connect these dots, and I was thrilled with the idea.
Additionally, 19 months prior I had an arthroscopic hip surgery to repair a torn labrum and clean up the resulting arthritis in the joint. There had been some residual pain that lingered after the procedure, which was delaying my recovery. I was still in pain, which greatly affected my motivation and limited my range of motion, so consequently I still had not recovered my full strength back. Additionally, through both my work schedule and the sedentary surgery period, I was heavier than I had ever been in my life. I saw this upcoming bike trip as an opportunity to overcome both these challenges at once; I knew it would be hard, but I was tired of being in limbo, and I was ready to give it my all.
From Noy’s perspective, she was happy to have a partner to tour with, and help cut costs. She offered to help me get ready, including lending me some key pieces of gear, such as panniers, gloves, a sun sleeves, and food containers. Her brother in law runs a bike rental business, so at a discounted rate I also rented a bicycle for the month. Because I was joining her trip, we were going to follow her plan, and we briefly discussed our expectations, in terms of what we wanted to see and achieve, on that first day. At the time it seemed like we were in agreement, but as the trip progressed, it became clear that our expectations and needs were quite divergent, and those differences ultimately proved too great to overcome, but now I am getting ahead of myself.
This blog entry is comprised of updates I sent home which I have fleshed out to provide more information or background where it felt enriching to do so. In keeping the original communications, I was hoping to preserve some of the energy and spirit I was experiencing on the trip. I do hope you enjoy it, and welcome any feedback you may have to offer.
The plan was to bus just across the Laos border and start biking east from there until reaching the coastal Vietnamese city of Vinh before heading south, the final destination being Ho Chih Minh city (also known as Saigon). From there we would fly back to Thailand, but not before visiting the Mekhong Delta and the city of Can Tho, which for Noy was the highlight of the journey. For the first stretch through Laos, Noy wanted to take a new road, still being constructed, as it would shave off over 100kms. from the journey. After reaching the coast, the plan was to bike on the inland highway in order to avoid the more plentiful traffic along the coastal route. This later changed to taking the flatter coastal highway for the sake of expediency, as the mountainous terrain of Laos was slow going, and ate up more of our time than anticipated. For the whole adventure we had exactly one month, as Noy had taken the time off work, and was expected back in Thailand.
*Note: Because the road is still under construction, Google Maps will not allow me to connect the dots between Muang Nguen and Luang Prabang on the route we actually rode. When you look at the map, imagine a direct line between these two points, and take out the large detour to the south or north.
Day 1 – Thailand to Laos
After a 2.5 hour bus ride, we arrived at the “friendship bridge”, a strange little stretch of road between officially exiting Thailand and entering Laos, there was a surreal moment when the bus simply swung over to drive on the other side of the road, as in Thailand they drive on the right, and in Laos on the left, as a throwback to colonial French occupation. Conveniently, this one had a perfect little curve in it to block the view, just built for subterfuge! (Hehe) Here we offloaded the bikes from the passenger bus we took from Nan.
However, something was not right, the song tow wasn’t there! Noy was stressing, as the bus driver did not want to wait. She tried to call her friend, but with no luck. Not wanting to leave the bikes unattended, at first she thought she would stay there, and I ride the bus to the Laos border, but at the last minute, she hopped on the bus too. To our great relief, the song tow was waiting at the Laos border! She told the driver where the bikes were and he went to pick them up while we headed through immigration, then back on the bus to the little border town of Muang Ngeun where we reconvened with our bikes. Of course we had to pay for our bus ride, pay the song tow driver, and then pay the bus extra for the bike as well, but in the end all went smoothly and it was worth it. We assembled our bikes, and after delivering a thank you gift of oranges to her friend who worked up the road, and a lovely lunch at the roadside restaurant where she works, we were on our way.
The road into the town of Hongsa was one of the worst you can imagine on a bike; full of potholes and unpaved sections. To get here we had to climb 18kms of straight-up steep hills that wound through the mountainous region of northern Laos before descending for about 15k. It was quite the introduction to bike touring! I am, of course sore, but my hip feels mostly ok, the little training injury of a strained hamstring that I gave myself riding up to a hilltop temple in Thailand in the spirit of getting ready for the trip hasn’t bothered me too much, and also minimal schaffing, so, so far so good
My first impression of Laos is that it is noticeably less affluent than Thailand in general. The language is close enough to Thai that my little guide can speak easily with everyone, and she’s been very conscientious about making sure both of our needs are met.
We stopped in town and had a fresh coconut while we wrestled with putting a SIM card in my phone, which ultimately didn’t work. I think my phone is unlocked, but apparently there is often compatibility problems in Laos, so wifi it is for me for the week I am passing through. While we were there I touched my face and it was covered with crusted salt from my sweat that had dried there!
And now here we are, sitting in a very clean room at a posh hilltop resort in the town of Hongsa, which is known for its power generating station (Hongsa Powah!). Ironically, as we pulled up to the driveway of the elaborate Hongsa Resort just as the sky turned to orange fire, there was one last, ridiculously steep hill. Haha! I guess that was our theme for the day. But it didn’t end there
Ironically, as we pulled up to the driveway of the elaborate Hongsa Resort just as the sky turned to orange fire, there was one last, ridiculously steep hill. Haha! But it didn’t end there my friends, no no; our bungalow for which we paid 108,000 Laos kip each! (but includes breakfast), was even further up, right up at the tippy top! I guess that was our theme for the day. We pushed our bikes for the last stretch, as we were both pretty done, but I’m sure the view will be spectacular in the morning.my friends, no no; our bungalow (for which we paid 108,000 Laos kip each! but includes breakfast), was even further up, right at the tippy top! We pushed our bikes for the last stretch, but I’m sure the view will be spectacular in the morning.
And now here we are, sitting in a very clean room at a posh hilltop resort in the town of Hongsa, which is known for its power generating station (Hongsa Powah!). We have another probably two days of riding to get to Luang Prabang (this turned out to be three), which I’ve heard is quite pretty and interesting, and on the Mekhong River. It is also the only big town on our route through Laos, so we will apply for visas there to enter Vietnam.
But because this terrain is so hilly and slow going, tomorrow night we will likely end up staying in a local Laos peoples home, something that is not uncommon in Asia apparently. This may mean no wifi until the day after, but know that I am safe, and that the journey has begun!
The terrain is so steep, and going is slow. At one point I was zigzagging across the slope to cut the grade and was going so slowly I literally just tipped over to the downhill side! As I recovered my bike all I could do was laugh that my maximum output wasn’t enough to keep my forward momentum. There was nothing left to do, but laugh. Hill 1, Alisoun 0.
It took us all of day two (9am-4:00pm) to go 29 kms., so when we finally reached a little town built on the sloping sides of a small river valley, we decided to stay the night. The next town was 27kms and many more hills away.
As we pulled up to park our bikes for the night, so many children gathered around! They were shy, so we warmed them up by taking photos. Then we all went to the river together to bathe and wash off the grime and sweat from the day. We had a grand time splashing, clowning around, and giggling in the shallow water, and took many photos as we bathed and Noy and I did our daily ritual of washing our clothes.
Clean and refreshed, we headed back to where the women of our host family (mother and daughter in law) worked in their simple kitchen, while children, dogs, chickens and cats wandered in and out. I haven’t seen a female dog yet who wasn’t suckling young, and the one here was so skinny, I snuck her rice and pork under the table. The pork was local and wild-crafted and sooo delicious. They were also making a large vat of rice whiskey in the kitchen, of which they gave me a taster. It was very strong!
The bed they offered us was a wide platform covered by mosquito netting, and nestled in the corner of a larger room, with a table, and television. While the mother, daughter-in-law and young son settled into watching a tv program after dark, three ten-year old girls and I practiced some English.
Though the bed was reasonably comfortable, the blankets were very dirty, and I was woken several times during the night by the barking dog and ubiquitous roosters. I could hear the family breathing and making “night music”, and it wasn’t until then that I realized that the family had given us their bed and slept on the floor in the same room.
The next day just to get out of the village we climbed and climbed straight up. It was so steep we could only go at a walking pace, and were accompanied by two Laos boys who easily kept up to us and just stared and stared. I found it quite irritating, to be working at my maximum only to travel a measly 4.41 kms per 50 mins. and having them amble alongside, effortlessly viewing our toil. After the better part of an our and there seemed to be no end to the staring, nor change in the level of familiarity or friendliness, I finally shooed them off! The views were amazing as we climbed; I couldn’t believe that it just kept going up. And up. And up. And up…
We had lunch at a hilltop home where a whole family of three generations lived. There were little potbelly pigs running around and the ubiquitous mama dog, male dog, tiny scraggly kitten, which they put under a rooster basket while we ate. Again the children just stared and stared, I can only imagine what must have been going through their minds. I wanted to capture them, but the instant I pointed a camera at them, they would look away, so I “selfied” them to trick them into being in a photo while I looked away.
This day we encountered a lot of construction, and after two days of straight climbing, finally started to descend into the lowlands again, signaling a successful crossing of the first mountain pass. This also marked the end of our time on the new highway. Moving into the lower altitudes, there was sense of how much easier life was here. With water sources more plentiful, and the road access established for longer, lives were abundant compared to the rugged scarcity of the mountain people. While savouring the downhills, we noticed the increased moisture in the air made it sweet, and as we passed through the plentiful villages, the people seemed more relaxed and happy, their lives perhaps lived less close to their means.
Noy wanted to shoot for Luang Prabang that night, but I was exhausted and my knee had been hurting since 1:00. So I finally asked that we stop for the night at 5:20pm. We ended up staying with a lovely Laos woman and her young son in their newly built home. She was beautifully generous, literally giving me the shoes off her feet and a sarong so we could wash at the split in the pipe of the waterline, which was directed into a bucket with a plastic bag.
She and her husband had just built their home three months ago, so no electricity or running water yet. It was a simple , one room home with a partitioned closet sized area for the bedroom and a day bed in the main room surrounded by a mosquito net. During the day, light leaked through the many cracks in the walls and chickens wandered in and out on the dirt floor.
As the day wound down, we watched our hostess prepare food and process rice by candlelight. In spite of her obvious poverty, she encouraged us to eat our fill of the delicious, simple dinner she prepared of steamed dark greens, savoury omelette and rice. While the smoke from the open fire in the centre of the room made a lusty coziness in the drafty building, I reflected on how intimate this cultural immersion felt. I was in a state of wonder as I nodded off to the immersive sound of crickets and frogs by the dying light of the fire.
Her husband was away working, but came home after we had gone to bed and parked his motorbike in the living room where we were sleeping! In the morning we were woken early by the baby, so we got up and moving right away. As there was no bathroom, we cat-holed our morning constitutions, burying them with an adze in the bush behind the house. She prepared us a lovely warm meal for breakfast, and a simple lunch with plenty of sticky rice to supplement. We gave her some money for the meals and shelter, and then were on our way.
Our day started with a hill of course, haha, but the road was nothing like the steep mountains of the last three days; now it meandered with gentle ups and downs. We wound our way along the valley floor through the many villages, and past a popular local tourist destination, before the road finally joined up with the beautiful Mekhong River. The population density started to noticeably increase as we got closer to Luang Prabang, before we finally arrived at the ferry terminal with the city on the other side. It had taken us 3.5 days from the Thai/Laos border to get here, arriving on day 4 at 12:45pm. On the way, we had stayed two nights in the homes of Laos people. Amazing!
It’s hard to explain the feeling as we arrived. This stretch of the river is wide and moves with the slow power of an anaconda. The humidity in the air lends an air of mystery and involves you on a visceral level that is hard to describe, blending the senses of sight and smell with the tactile so it all feels to be happening inside you as well as out, and at the same time triggers some kind of memory that you’ve been here before, or perhaps you’ve always been here, and just waiting to be reunited with yourself.
Whatever the cause, it is arresting. The city of Luang Prabang curves along the river bank, and the architecture of buildings and streets harken back to a time when the organic relationship with an environment and it’s resources determined the layout of a town. The ferry is a phenomenon of it’s own; a wide, flat decked 8 car ferry which travels across the current at a rakish angle, and comes into the dock impossibly sideways, only to straighten out nonchalantly at the end with the ease of hourly practice.
Day 4 – Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang is swarmed with tourists and the prices are high, but my intrepid guide is doing her best to haggle and find good prices, since she knows the economy better than I. My knee has been quite painful for the past two days where I had an old MCL strain from driving a snowmobile on my birthday working a ski patrol shift up at Cypress Mountain, BC. At this point, I’m thinking I may have to skip the rest of Laos by bike because Noy says it is similar to what we have just done. The last 120 kms. took us 2.5 days because the terrain was so steep! Judging by my current state, I don’t think my body can handle it. We have yet to come up with an alternate plan.
I just paid 6$ for breakfast in one of the poorest countries in the world. I hate tourist culture! I can only hope it trickles down. I had an excellent sports massage last night and my tiny powerhouse of a therapist (who physically stood on my hamstrings: it felt soooo good!) told me she makes only $2.34/hour of massage. This city is beautiful and represents some remarkable history, but has become a huge tourist trap.
Day 5 – Luang Prabang, Laos
A Well-Earned Rest
Well, we’ve had a successful pit stop here in the bustling tourist centre of LP. I managed to change over my bike pannier bracket, as the other one didn’t fit and the bags kept sliding forward into my heels, which was frustrating. I also found a suitable strap to jury rig the kickstand, which was loose and kept hitting the pedal. I had one excellent massage and will take another tonight. We got my visa for entry into Vietnam sorted, I ate some comfort food and had some excellent coffees. We changed more money and bought some bits and pieces we were needing and a couple of light sundries from the market. I even had a surprise sighting of Ted Danson! (bottom left below). Now we are easy to go again tomorrow morning!
I was going to beg off this next section and take the bus, but it would have left me with 7 days to kill and it wasn’t feeling right. A driver at the immigration office gave us some more information about the road ahead, and apparently it’s not as steep as the one we just crossed (since that one was literally the steepest in the country!), so I guess I’m going to give it another whirl. Hopefully my knee behaves.
We figure it’ll take us another 7-9 days to cross Laos, which means we’ll have less time for Vietnam. Noy has adjusted our course to take the coastal road once we reach Vietnam, which is flat and will be faster, and is also likely to have more for me to see as a first timer to the country, so I’m happy about that. Even so, we will likely end up taking the bus for some of it, as we won’t have enough time left after this slow-going mountain climbing to cycle the whole way to Ho Chi Minh city.
Onward to Phou Khoum, and then to Phonsavan. We figure it’ll take us another 7-9 days
Day 6 – Luang Prabang, Laos
Oyvey! The sharing of information has proven to be challenging for both of us I suppose. Noy’s English is limited and she is gathering information and making a plan as we go. This morning I was woken earlier than expected and she told me maybe I should take the bus after all, since she has new information that the distance today is 70 kms., and may be beyond my ability (why did she wait until 5:00 in the morning to tell me that?).
I’m actually fine with it, as it’s becoming clear we have very different agendas on this trip! Noy is on a fierce training program; she is training to bike the highest highway in the world, from Kathmandu India to Annapurna Nepal, this coming June, so the Laos section is important training for her. Since this is my first bike trip, I just hope I survive it! Also, as I am far from home and here for the first time, I want to do a bit of sight seeing.
I took an extra day in Luang Prabang, and in spite of limited time for research, I managed to squeeze in all my greatest wishes. I went to the Khang Si waterfalls, met the cutest puppy I ever did see, and did a private Mekhong boat cruise at sunset. I also had my laundry done. I know Noy would never approve of my languorous, costly ways, but this made me very happy.
Day 7 – Phou Khoum, Laos
Well I made it safely to PhouKhoun, the rendez-vous point to meet up with Noy, but not without some classic Asian travel complications.
First, I missed the bus because my guesthouse told me 9:00 departure but it left at 8:30. I ended up taking the local transport, a small, open backed truck with bench seats that carries everything from noodles and pork skin to lumber, along with humans. I had packed my bike into a box for the big bus, but in the end maybe it wasn’t even necessary, so an extra expense for nothing.
The road was indeed steep and the hills long. I was glad I didn’t bike it, even the truck was having trouble in some sections keeping up speed. In fact it took us 5 hours to go 120kms, so I guess that gives some idea of the difficulty, though some of that was due to road conditions, and how windy and narrow it was.
Right at the start of the climb there was a big transport truck lying on its side against the embankment with one whole row of wheels up in the air. As we passed it, I could hear chickens panicking in the back, poor things!
Then, at about the halfway point, after 2+ hours of bumpy, windy roads first thing in the morning, I needed to use the bathroom so badly I finally leaned over to the drivers side window as we entered a little town and asked for the “hong naam” (literally ‘water room’). The driver stopped but said (in Laos, but his intentions were clear), “You can go, but if you do, you stay here, I’m not waiting!” Ooh, I was sooo uncomfortable because I had already waited as long as I could before asking him, hoping we would arrive at our destination, but I stayed in the truck and he barreled off again. He must have taken pity on me however, because a few yards up the road he stopped and asked a local if I could use the washroom in their house. Thank god! Even without the pee factor it was a dusty, cold, uncomfortable and long trip.
Day 9 – Phonsavan, Laos
These last couple of days have been so full, it’s been hard to find time to write. Because the terrain in Laos is so hilly, and taking longer than expected, we are crunched for time, so have been trying to put as many kms. in per day as possible.
Amazingly, we came across two other cyclists, also from Thailand, so we leap-frogged with them most of yesterday and today, pretty much on our own rhythms, but synchronistically sharing meal spots. It was nice to have a couple more bodies on the adventure, and gave our tight dynamic of two a little room to breathe in a positive way. One of them had a fair amount of bike touring experience too, and was able to help me fine-tune the setting of my derailleur so it was finally shifting smoothly into my lower gears. Better late than never, and it made such a difference!
Yesterday we cycled about 83 kms (-20 for me, more on that in a minute), and it was the most stunning day by far. We travelled through mountainous terrain, but unlike the other stretch, the ups and downs were fairly moderate. Well-established towns situated along the roadside enjoyed an exquisite quality of life, perched right on the precipice of steep mountains falling away below, and overlooking the most jaw dropping vistas. Yesterday was the most stunning day by far. We travelled through mountainous terrain, but unlike the other stretch, the ups and downs were fairly moderate. Well established towns enjoyed an exquisite quality of life perched right on the precipice and looking over the most jaw dropping vistas.
The road wound around the mountainsides, before finally plummeting 30kms. in the most deliciously windy switchbacks with views for days. I plugged in my headphones, listened to Xavier Rudd’s “Follow the Sun” on repeat and felt like I was flying. It was a gloriously long descent along the spine of the mountain-range with breathtaking exposure and views, and it felt like the payback for all the previous days’ toil.
I was euphoric, and my body felt great, until about 2/3 of the way up the long uphill on the other side when my knee started playing up again. I had to catch a local truck for the last 20kms, which Noy helped me flag down and communicate with. It felt just like being tucked 4 people into the cab of my father’s dirty country Toyota pickup cab while growing up, and just like back then, I got the gear stick! They made room for me, one older woman climbing into the back to join another so that I could have a spot in the centre on the front seat. The charismatic and powerful younger woman who sat in the passenger seat beside me chatted to me engagingly in Lao, completely nonplussed that I didn’t understand a word she was saying, and even massaged my knee a little, the rest of the time resting her arm amicably on my leg.
They weren’t going all the way to our destination, so at their house they set up a chair for me in the front yard and after a lot of confusion I finally understood they wanted me to wait for Noy to catch up to us. I watched as she doted over her deliciously sweet little babe in the golden glow of the afternoon sunlight.
Once she did pass by, I joined Noy for the last 10-15 kms. before we saw our Thai men’s cycling team having a meal in a restaurant. We joined them, and the finishing earlier than we went on to stay at a guest house down the road. The kind woman who ran the guest house invited us to stay with them, but when I looked at the room they were offering us, I balked at its squalor, and the fact that there was no wifi, and pushed Noy to continue on to the guest house where the others stayed. It was so good to land in a clean bed with a shower and have the chance to update my trip with the folks at home. I really needed that this night!
The next day, a brisk 40 kms. got us into the relatively larger center of Ponsavanh. We had lunch, and did a bit of shopping and then Noy and I split up again because she was tired and wanted to push on another 22kms to sleep at Nong Phet, and I wanted to check out the world heritage site of the “Plain of Jars”, which is just 6kms out of town.
I am so glad I went, it was a fascinating site, with huge stone jars like a glacial moraine scattered across a field that also retained several holes from bombs dropped during the 2nd world war. I read a lot about the war, and didn’t know that Laos sustained possibly even worse bombing than Vietnam during the horrendous Vietnam war, as the pilots would lighten their loads on the homeward journey to save petrol, by dumping whatever bombs had not been deployed on Laos on the way home.
The jars are fascinating too, and a bit of a mystery. They are found in other parts of the world too, and though they don’t know who made them, they think they were used for burials. One of the theories is that they would put the body in the jar and then cover it with a lid. Once the flesh had gone, they would bury the bones beside the jar. The smaller jars may have come later when they began to cremate the bodies first, allowing for smaller spaces.
Like Stonehenge, their history, size and presence is impressive; but the bombing history is also very interesting here. With a cave at the site too, I felt like I got three experiences in one.
Day 10 – Big Springs hot springs, Laos
Haha crazy morning! I got up early to try and catch up with Noy but when I checked her message said she had gone on last night another 30kms so no chance to catch her now. I took myself to the bus station to catch the bus to her destination today and figured out which bus (the ticket counter wasn’t open yet), got my bike loaded on top and headed to the market for some food and to use the washroom. When I got back, the ticket counter was open so I went up to buy a ticket and the guy told me in perfect English that I would pay the driver.
So… I thought to ask him which town was at the top of today’s climb, so I could at least get a bit of cycling in, and long story short I ended up using his wifi and discovered a new message from Noy that her plans had changed because she had found a hot springs! Whoopee!!
The 76 km ride was actually really easy, because most of it was downhill. On the road I met a really inspiring human named Christopher Boyce who had cycled from Argentina to Canada and then flew over to Hong Kong and was cycling west to Luang Prabang, then south to Thailand, then flying to India before completing his tour in Bhutan. He’s a writer, and working on a sponsored project about the source and nature of happiness. We got deep into the philosophy really quickly and had a good roadside chat in the middle of a steep dirt road in backcountry Laos. Check out his blog for his remarkable journey here: https://adventuresinhappinessblog.wordpress.com
The hot springs were lovely, but quite different from the ones in Canada, no surprise there I suppose. The place was nicely presented with gardens and strangely, a kind of pseudo zoo with ostriches, porcupines, deer, and a monkey, as well as squirrels, birds and some other oddities. They had three large concrete pools, but they were empty, and you had to pay a pretty penny for them to turn on the tap and let the hot spring water into one of them, so that was a tad disappointing. On the other hand, there were bathtubs in the guesthouse rooms and the taps piped in hot spring water, so I had my first bath since arriving to Asia with natural hot springs water to boot, which was super nice.
After I had settled in and had a nice long soak, I went for a little wander around the grounds. I found my way to the hot springs source, a hot pool surrounded by cactus, and a fast moving brook of hot water! Fortunately I was wearing my swimsuit, so I dipped my legs into the pool, and then found a nice little indentation in the stream where the water could cascade over my shoulders. I was in the forest, and completely alone, and if felt good to have a more natural experience of the hot springs, more like you would find in Canada.
Day 11 – Nong Het, Laos
Last Day in Laos
Ouf, lots of challenges the last couple of days. Noy was angry with me for wanting to go see the world heritage site of the jars because she only wants to cycle, it is a short time to go a long way, so I understand, but I also cannot imagine coming home and saying I saw nothing of Laos and Vietnam because I only cycled. We talked about it today and she basically said I either follow her itinerary to the letter, or we split up and do separate trips.
The only thing is, it’s not like she has a plan. She has been doing research as she goes and gathering information from conversations with locals, which she often forgets to report to me, or tells me last minute or at some ungodly hour in the morning, so I’m finding it difficult to balance my needs with her style. Things are a bit tenuous at the moment and I don’t know how they’ll go.
I have no information on Vietnam, and the thought of doing it by myself is a bit daunting, but in the end it may be the best thing. We may even end up leap-frogging and can stay in touch by internet through social media and use Google Maps to keep track of our locations.
The theme of the first week was seeing her back as she cycled off into the distance, but now that I have found my stride, my longer frame means that I cycle much faster than her, about 15kms/hr to her 10. Today I did an experiment to see how much earlier I would arrive on Nong Het to see how much leeway I have to check our nearby roadside attractions. For example there was a waterfall on the way, only 5 kms off the road, which I actually had intended to see, but then blew by the turn off by accident. I arrived in Nong Het an hour before her, so possibly would have had time to do that.
I arrived early enough in Nong Het to cross the border today, but since I waited for Noy, I missed the opening hours. For some reason it hadn’t even crossed my mind that they would close, haha. Nong Het, Laos is about an hour’s cycle from the border-crossing to Vietnam. While I waited for her to arrive, I camped out at the Laos development bank using their wifi to do a bit of research, figuring out where to change money, the currency comparison, and relative prices of things so I know how much money to change, etc.
Today’s cycle was quite hilly and my knee is very sore now. I finally realized that the pain is due to scar tissue I have in my MCL from a snowmobile injury while ski patrolling. I guess the tissue lacks elasticity, so is not responding with resilience to the strain of the up-hills. I wonder if I continue to ask it to adapt to this new load, it will eventually revise itself … I sure hope so! In the meantime I have been trying to ride really consciously, not pushing too hard on the up-hills, and working with low resistance/high speed instead, just to extend the number of kms. I can cycle in a day.
However, aside from that, I am feeling strong, and starting to understand the rhythm of cycle touring. This evening with my extra time, and this turning point looming ahead of us, I have been ruminating on how one of the unexpected gifts of travelling is to relinquish expectations, as things hardly ever pan out as you think they will. This is especially true of travelling in Asia, where the language barrier adds an element of surprise to all transactions. Things often unfold differently than expected, but somehow magically still work out, likely due in large part to the good nature and general good intentions of the people.
I met some nice travelers in the guesthouse here, including my second travelling beekeeper: who knew that this seasonal work was so conducive to a travel lifestyle? We had a fire and some interesting chats. I also used the unexpected time to finally sort out my email troubles; I’ve been locked out of all my accounts since I left Thailand due to security features detecting I am in an unusual area which was super frustrating. I also managed to buy the second part of my flight home, which I started in Luang Prabang, but didn’t finish, so that is finally sorted.
I’ve read and been told quite a bit about Vietnamese people being swindlers, thieves and maybe not so friendly, so I’m a bit nervous about heading there. I’ve also heard though that the food is world class and the scenery stunning, so I’m sure it will not be as hard in real life as it seems in the mind, as is the case on so many occasions.
Day 12 – Muang Xen, Vietnam
Entry into Vietnam
Noy and I had another strong conversation this morning and seem to have hashed out our differences, so all is well for now. Finallywe have made it into Vietnam. We are currently in Muang Xen, just 22kms from border. The road was downhill switchbacks all the way, so while not quite as picturesque as the one in Laos, it was still exhilarating!
Though we did not ride far today, we may not go further, as we are just sorting out logistics, currency, SIM cards etc. This is fine by me, as I’m feeling a little under the weather and my knee is very sore.
Now we are enjoying a coffee with sweetened condensed milk; a treat reserved for Asia. It’s delicious! It tastes like chocolate and gives us a place to eat our lunch, which we brought with us from Nong Het. I managed to get a SIM card working in my phone so I now have internet on the fly, without having to wait for wifi.
Day 13 – Hoa Binh, Vietnam
Ok, up after a good long sleep and rest for my leg, and ready for another round of Asian madness. This chapters flavour: Vietnamese.
Since arriving in Vietnam I have been regaled with “hellos”, all produced suddenly, and at full volume, which comes across as very aggressive. Yesterday, while out for an exploratory bike ride through town, a scooter with a mom and two kids pulled me over to practice their English with me. The 9 yr old girl and 5 yes old boy were almost fluent, and had apparently learned from the internet and a learning program their mom had supplied them. The mom seemed to speak no English. Amazing!
The hotel here already shows an improvement in infrastructure. In Laos, the drain from the sink would empty out onto the floor at your feet to be absorbed by the shower drain, (a great adventure whenever washing out food tins or coffee grounds), but here there is actual plumbing, and a primitive toilet flush instead of just a bucket of water.
The horns are a big thing here in Vietnam. In Laos they use them politely to scurry animals off the roads since every town is right along the roadside because of the steepness of the terrain (except in the rare case of a town situated on a valley bottom where a river runs through it), and the dogs, pigs, chickens, ducks, cows, and children all range free. Here they seem to just honk for fun, and it’s endless, and gets old really quickly.
The stores here are something else. Like your grandparents closet, they are overflowing with dusty, poorly stacked stuff that looks like it’s been to the their side of the world and back. And judging by some of the wild and crazy methods of transport I have seen on the road, often piled higher than one’s ability to believe possible, in some case I guess it has.
Here are some sights from the little town where we are. The last one is a river flowing right across a road with garbage strewn on the downstream side. These three functions would normally be separated in N. America.
Just withdrew 3,000,000 (that’s 3 million, folks) Vietnamese dong from a bank machine (=171$ CND) mind.blown.
From a preliminary search on Google Earth, it looks like our road from here follows the river valley and therefore will be mainly flat with some hilly sections. Hallelujah! This means we should make good time and also will be easier on my knee. It’s a challenge to find out which towns have actual lodging for visitors, as there are many small towns along the way, but the lodging seems fairly far apart actually. The weather, as mentioned, is quite a bit warmer here, though today looks like it’s threatening rain. We’ve had low cloud in the mornings for the past week, which leant itself to some lovely mountain feels.
In Hoa Bin I find a hotel off the beaten path and check the price and have a look at the room. All is well, it is clean, and affordable. The woman affectionately takes my hand as she is showing me from room to room, so I know I’m in a good place. Communication breaks down though, when she insists on writing notes to me in Vietnamese on tiny sticky notes. I try to get her to use my phone so it can be translated, but apparently she falls into my father’s category when it comes to technology: luddite.
We start to try and find someone else who can help us, and before long an English teacher pulls up on a scooter and offers his service. By the time Noy arrives all is settled. She is pleased with the room and I have a guide for my dinner choice for the evening in exchange for offering some time to speak with his students so they can practice their English.
They are so friendly, her husband even take me across the street for a tour of their house, which is massive in Vietnamese terms and even in western terms. High ceilings, beautiful solid wood bannisters, and a 180 deck overlook the rooftops of the city. Then they show me the pictures of their three kids on the walls, as babies and with their spouses. They are clearly so proud and happy with their lives. Lovely!
I’m feeling quite pleased with myself all around for accomplishing so much on my own, and after a shower to freshen up I head out on foot into the market across the street. Spying two sweet little boys I start to sign communicate with their parents as I watch them. It’s not long before one of them bursts into tears. I have this effect on babies here, it seems. Was it the wild, red hair? Haha.
I head to a coffee shop for a yummy Vietnamese coffee, as it’s late afternoon, and before lonI head to a coffee shop for a yummy Vietnamese coffee, as it’s late afternoon, and before long am in the most elaborate photo shoot with the owner (who is the same age as me). She uses an app to put ridiculous eyebrows on our faces (I guess she noticed I have none!) and got her daughter to take photo after photo. I finally had to shut her down, as I just wanted to enjoy my coffee. I paid and left to meet the English teacher, Paul, who offered to help me find some good eats for dinner.
Back at the hotel, I hopped on the back of his scooter and we went to a great local market where he introduced me to a female colleague of his, Emily, who was minding her grandmothers stall. He enlisted her help, as she knew the market well, and the three of us explored the market for some chicken. We found delicious stuffed tofu instead, and I bought some farm fresh tomatoes from her stall. Then Paul and I hammed up selling vegetables at the stall while Emily videoed for use in his class to practice listening to English. We had a lot of laughs and took some fun selfies.
As I couldn’t find rice or cooked vegetables at the market, Paul brought me back to a little restaurant across from our hotel and helped organize with her that I get some rice and green beans. (Which were absolutely delicious, btw). As she was cooking them, someone came in and already had both the eyebrows photo of me with the coffee vendor, and the video we made at the market on her phone. It was wild! Then the owner wanted a photo with me, haha. She plopped a roll of pork wrapped in a green leaf and fried on my plate and again, it was so delectable! Needless to say I ate like a queen. It’s actually hard to order the right amount of food here, and I often find I end up with too much, but I love how you can bring food into a restaurant, and as long as you order something, they are happy to help you make it all into a meal.
I finished the night off by meeting three students of Paul’s to help them practice their English and we had a blast playing charades and sharing dreams and fancy drinks. What a fun day! And here I was nervous about Vietnam, haha. I just had the best day ever!
Day 14 – Anh Son, Vietnam
Day 3 in Vietnam – Delayed Culture Shock!
This place is like Laos on steroids. Closer to China than Thailand in its sensibility, there is brashness, noise and attitude everywhere you look. Riding my bike I get quite irritated by the constant “hellos” and honking horns, which seem to be more about “get out of my way” than courtesy, and an excuse to drive too fast right in the middle of the road.
88 kms today, our longest day yet. The same again tomorrow will get us in to Vinh. My “hello” basket was empty long before the ride was done. My day was bookended by drunken, extremely loud groups of men eating and smoking at both morning and evening meals. The scenery was spectacular. I was mobbed more than once, the most notable time being by a drunken wedding. My knees hurt and I’m spent. There is cigarette smoke seeping through the pores of this hotel room and it will not be stopped. Vietnam is loud. More tomorrow.
Day 15 – Vinh, Vietnam
I realize that my difficult day the other day was mostly due to the adjustment in culture between Laos and Vietnam. I took a pretty heavy dose of music therapy that third day, plugging my headphones in to ride and practicing saying no just to remember I could, to keep my sanity. All good now 😊
Laos is more like Thailand, in that there is an undercurrent of peacefulness and reverence. Their demeanour is gentle and happy, and their values lie with life. Vietnam is more like China, in that they are loud, brash and dirty, spitting on the street, pushing in front of you, yelling to get someone’s attention, and their values are more material in nature, such as success, more about progress than family, and material vs. spiritual. They make shrines of their cars, and archways over streets with great pomp and show, but lacking in beauty and grace. They litter, and smoke, and crowd you, and don’t seem to care if their environment is beautiful or clean.
Some of the more inane behaviours are hard to fathom, such as shouting “hello!!” At you, even after you’ve answered them, and doing it again if you pass by them twice, even though they have no other words to engage you with in English. Then they cackle and say something to their neighbours in Vietnamese. It’s annoying and inane, but generally innocent, and ultimately reflects a great enthusiasm to engage. All this takes a bit of getting used to, but once you “normalize” to it as best you can, you find openly curious, helpful and friendly people with a lot of national pride.
So far all of Asia is a much more social culture in general than Canada, and it’s taken a while to simply trust that I am safe, and people are good and well-meaning. So far I have not felt any dishonesty here though, apart from one dodgy roadside vendor who may or may not have ripped me off, though I can’t say for sure, and his weirdo “uncle”, who grabbed the candy I was offering to the kids nearby and tried to give out the whole bag, while grabbing a bunch for himself.
There were a lot of weddings on the way, and one group called me over. I wanted to get a picture of the nice traditional dresses the ladies were wearing, and before you know it a crowd of drunken, reveling people were surrounding me. It was pretty funny actually. They started taking shots of me, so I pulled my camera out too, haha… Then I got the heck out of dodge.
At another pee stop, a woman gave me a bag of cookies and two energy drinks as a gift from Vietnam to Canada in the market. I later handed them out to school-children and was given another bag of candy by a man unloading a truck. In general, my impression is of a country determinedly, and with great energy, occupying a country that has only recently been unified under local rule, and is somehow on a ground level unified in the task of putting Vietnam on the world stage through tourism. It’s quite remarkable really, considering their recent history of country-wide war, and the destruction, displacement, and division that happened there.
Again, the scenery was stunning, especially the mountains coming into Anh Son. Pretty much every time I stopped, a crowd would gather, and someone would goad their kid to try and speak English with me, the same three phrases: “how old are you?”, “where you come from?”, “what is your name?”.
Then outside the cities of Co Cuong and Anh Son, there were huge fields of agriculture, and the terrain began to change, while the land became less beautiful and more impacted by human uses. There was a lot of large-scale rice harvesting going on, still carried out primarily with the use of water buffalo
I noticed clusters of different types of commerce. One stretch of the road has roadside stand after stand selling oranges. I passed them by thinking there would be more, but there wasn’t! Apparently that was the strip to buy oranges. Fortunately, this woman randomly called me over to give me a delicious orange she was eating, so I didn’t miss out.
I did stop however when I saw an intriguing operation of what I’m pretty sure was turmeric being harvested and made into a tonic. This woman gave me an impromptu tour of her little factory, including a taster of the product, which was delicious and felt very healthy in the mouth and body.
I stopped several times to rest, instinctively seeking the company of females, as I felt much more synergy there, and ultimately felt safer. This woman gave me sunflower seeds and let me use her washroom while I rested a spell.
Until finally, I reached Vinh city, and the inevitable happened… Aaahhhhhh ☕️
Day 15 – Vinh, Vietnam
Arrival to the coast
Well! The last couple of days have been a chaotic whirlwind of long days, adjusting to a new culture, and travel logistics
It is with great relief and pride that I report I have reached Vinh City. My sore bottom is absorbing the merciful cushioning of an oversized chair at the moment while I wait for Noy who is about two hours behind. As with most cities, Vinh has all the conveniences and inconveniences of a big city. Amenities, selection, services, alongside smog, traffic, and noise.
To celebrate my arrival, I took a bus out to Cua Lo beach, about 20kms from Vinh to see the South China Sea. After so many days heading east overland, it felt like the appropriate thing to do was get right to the edge, and connect with the ocean to formalize my arrival.
The hotel owner and his daughter were so very kind, dropping everything to help me in my request about which bus to take to the beach. She used her English to explain my request, resulting in him driving me to two different bus stations to find the right one. I waited quite a while for the bus, vexing a little as the light was beginning to fade, but the lady vendor near the station championed my cause and made sure I didn’t leave or get on the wrong bus. Then once on the bus a young girl who spoke English translated for the ticket taker that this was the last bus of the day and was coming directly back.
It was starting to get dark, so when they dropped me off, the ticket taker and the English-speaking girl quickly asked a man sitting at the stop with a motorcycle if he would drive me back to the city. Hiring a motorcycle is common practice in Asia, but them helping me find someone not only made it waaay safer given the hour, but also took all the work out of it for me.
Another nice lady who spoke fairly good English and happened to be at the stop, and helped translate so I could arrange that we meet back there in 30 mins. Then I went to the beach. It was just dusk, so didn’t see much, but apparently it looks like this. Purportedly this is one of the most beautiful beaches in Vietnam.
I didn’t see much, but I took my shoes off and the beach and was so soft and fine. Then I waded in the water and felt my feet sink into the sand. I wandered up and down a few times, drinking in the sea and celebrating my arrival to the edge of the continent.
When It was time to go it felt like two soon, but as my motorcycle riding skills were put to the test in the raw anarchy of Asian traffic on the way home, I knew it was a good thing to have left early, and also, as it was post sunset and the temperature quickly dropping, good that I had not taken the dip I was drawn to.
This kind man drove me right to my hotel safely and charged less than I expected to pay. He chatted away to me in Vietnamese, of which I understand only a sliver of his inference, and we had some pretty funny navigating challenges which looked like me clutching my phone with map gps with one claw hand and the motorbike with the other and making my best guesses to point at each intersection, phone in hand. But I got back to the hotel safely, and once again I was treated so kindly, and everyone was so helpful.
Some chaos ensued when Noy arriving later than me to Vinh City by about 1.5 hours rushed for her train station to get her ticket (I was on my way to the beach), and then couldn’t remember which hotel she’d told me to meet her at where I’d taken and paid for a room, so instead of checking in with me, she just took one on her own.
But that was just the beginning; this was the night we were supposed to discuss plans for the next leg of the trip. Suddenly I’m scrabbling to get information over a chat from her and doing last minute research. She has told me very little about her plan, so I’m making it up, mostly.
She tells me only after I ask her for information a number of times what her plan is, and what train she is on. She also says that I have to buy my ticket before 8am, it’s the law…
Day 16 – Train to Hue, Vietnam
Bike trip ends here…
So I get up and out early after a late night of research and a stressed sleep and go before breakfast and to get to the train station, but they tell me my bike will take 7 days because there’s only one cargo train and they had one cancel.
This is not good news: I wanted my bike to come to my next stop, but it seems this is not possible. So I resign myself to sending it on to the stop to the south where I think Noy will be in a week. When I go to buy my ticket, it turns out that in fact there is no time limit for purchasing a ticket, so I got up super early for nothing.
When Noy comes to the station, she finds out same problem with her bike, so she’s suddenly having to figure out what to do for a week. But then.. (the plot thickens), at about 15 minutes before our train arrives, she finds someone who speaks both Thai and Vietnamese, and they learn that it IS possible to get the bike sent overnight and she can have it meet her where she is going. The train station employee who is processing her request imperialistically seems to say it’s only for her, so I sit tight in the waiting room.
Then… even more last minute she finds out I can change mine too, and do I want to?
I say yes, and this lovely woman lobbies for us like a champion, all the while holding her heavy toddler son. With the imperial lady, I get my money back (minus a 10% fee), then the baggage people are gone for the day but she lobbied with a guy on a motorcycle to go bring her back. She comes back and protests loudly with wrinkled brows for about 7 mins while we are on the edge of our seats about missing our train before finally agreeing to make the change.
We get inside and I write the new place on the paper, but then the date is floating around. This happens a lot with Noy, dates, prices, distances, time.. the value of these things move around constantly, so it’s super hard to get a fix on what’s actually happening. First my will arrive tomorrow, then the day after, while all the while I feel so much time pressure by the imminent arrival of the train. So I write my second destination on the order from, but the date keeps changing (probably a language thing, there are three women chattering away with great intensity in three different languages), and I start getting worried that I will get stuck waiting for my bicycle or that it will arrive just as I have to leave again and I’ll have to go through the production all over again of getting it shipped etc, and it all just feels so crazy and uncertain, at the last minute I pull out!!!!!!!
And then I realize, it could have been perfect…
But it’s too late now.
So then I feel all conflicted.
But whatever, it is what it is…
And so the story goes on.
And my bike goes to Ho Chih Minh city.
Later I find out Noy thought I wanted to cycle from DaNang (which is actually a bit too far, especially with my sore knee). We just didn’t have enough time to line up our plans here, so things kind of fell apart.
Now I am on the train to Hue, and my bike will be shipped to Ho Chi Minh city within 5-7 days. In the interim I will be a tourist and explore Hue, Da Nang, and Hoi An, then take the sleeper train down to Saigon to meet my bike.
Noy is taking this train further along to Tuy Hoa and receiving her bike within a day or two and then cycling as far as she can towards Ho Chi Minh before hopping a bus to (hopefully) meet me. Then we will cycle together to Can Tho, which is on the Mekhong Delta and the highlight of the trip for Noy, before heading back to HCMC to fly Feb 3rd.
The last two days were 82-88km cycling days, and the last day in particular was really hard on my knee(s). They hurt right from the start (88kms today), and by the last 10kms I was willing myself forward like a wounded soldier. The rest will be good for some tissue repair I’m sure, and my knees and body are grateful for a few recoup days, although I’m sure after a few I’ll be itching to get back on the bike again, and back in the saddle for a nice finish.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this plan above is not what ended up happening. Over the next week, I explored Hue, Da Nang and Hoi An within the timeline we had discussed. I had a marvelous time, meeting other travelers, and taking in some of the fascinating history of those areas. When it came close to the time to reconnect with Noy, I reached out to her for some information on her whereabouts and plan; she sent me some photos (“I’m having a lovely time”), but no info. Without the information I needed in a timely manner, I was forced to make a decision independent of her. Since it continued to seem to not be working, I elected to continue my exploration of the coast, tagging along with a growing motley crew of travelers I had been meeting along the way.
I grew to wish I had not booked my return ticket on Noy’s itinerary, but had done so with the information I had at the time, so hindsight’s 20/20 as they say. I took a chance and instead of meeting my bike when it was scheduled to arrive, I headed south of Saigon to explore the Mekhong Delta before returning for my flight. Just before this, Noy contacted me one last time and inquired whether I would like to go there with her. Completely disillusioned by this point with her unreliability, I told her ‘no’, and went there on my own.
Coincidentally, as I made my way from the train station to the bike shop she had mentioned to me where I could possibly locate a bike box for the return trip home, I ran into her in the street! What are the chances? Unfortunately the bike shop was closed. Seeing her only confirmed the decisions I had made up until that point, and we continued to go separate ways until we met again at the airport where once again, in her presence, chaos ensued. But in order to get that story, you’ll have to read my other blog entry on the rest of the journey of the coast of Vietnam by bus!
This officially wraps up the bicycle touring part of the journey. Thanks for joining me!