12 of us set out to explore Northern Vietnam and Laos. After 2 days acclimatizing in Hanoi we were bussed to the start to be served lunch outside as it was teachers day and they were cat walling to the Karaoke machine. Bikes together and a quick test and we were off heading eventually along the Red River which was flattish, something we wouldn’t see again for some time.
It was much as expected and I kept having to tell myself it wasn’t Yunnan province in China. Paddy fields abounded but there were fewer workers in these than China. Interspersed were grave stones and round these the buffalos grazed.
The ride from Yen Bai to Nghia Lo introduced us to road life and what was grown in these parts. Cinnamon sticks made from bark, tea plantations and sweet corn drying in yards passed us by, but it was huge piles of laminate wood that I shall remember.
The next day showed that in this country they eat anything. It started with a look round the market. Slabs of offal on polished surfaces, lungs, liver, guts everything. Unlike India though it all looked really fresh, they slaughter at 0300 and sell on the day. In fish corner, foot long fish were grabbed from the tank, clubbed and then had their heads and tails cut off whilst still flapping about. The bizarre thing was the heads were selling faster than the good? bits. In duck and poultry corner the ducks looked quite content with their feet tied together and next to this were 2 puppies in a cage and yes there were dog heads for sale. Elsewhere there were loads of garden produce and an ethnic tribal grandma was tucking into the doughnuts and after 4 days of fried rice could I resist? Onto the road and after another climb, I dropped to a ravine where a new bridge was being built. In the ‘foreman’s shed’ a voice called out ‘Tea?’ Well I knew it would be green tea – yuck, but never refuse. After 3 cups he trotted into the tent and produced a screw top jar with a cup cling filmed to the top. Caught this morning he smiled and showed me the photo on his smartphone. Inside laid a 30 year old 5 metre Python in alcohol. Left for a year the Chinese buy this for $300 dollars, and a cup of the marinade makes you younger and stronger. 10 km further on was a buffalo surrounded by Vietnams gently being torched with an ash felt burner ready for the pot, yummy.
Than Uyan beckoned and the faces of the people have changed a bit and dressed in ethnic the ladies wear black with guilded scarves. I sat in a shop, supping an orange juice whilst the locals prod my tyres, brakes and my arms in that order (I'm too pale apparently.) The Chinese just over the border in Yunnan are after the iron ore so are upgrading the road. Lots of new road side barriers. The hassle is that the lorries are breaking up the road, so you can't safety go fast, but there are very few lorries and very few cars (except the Chinese) so it's all motorbikes with 2-5 people crammed onto them.
Alarm at 0620 and almost straight out. The light was up and so were the school children, is there ever a time they aren’t travelling to and from school? Flattish for 60km and then up and over the Tram Tom pass and with 1250m of climbing that wasn’t easy. Sapa greeted us or rather would have done had the mist not enshrouded it. The next day we explored Sapa and returned back over the pass the next day.
Out at 0800, down a single track road and down a valley where the road disappeared into a brand new lake. Only one solution, onto a boat. Flat bottomed, narrow but quite fast at 12kmh with a single engine driving a propeller via a long drive shaft we were whisked to the point where the road came back out of the lake. Onto this and up it went. Being dead end it was pretty deserted and we passed several of those magnificent solitary hard rock formations, like Jurassic Park. Down we went, but what’s this, no road! Another lake created in the last year and the new road chiselled out of the hillside, not yet laid but a sea of mud. Progress had been slow and there was still the big climb ahead. Lunch by the bridge and we started in pursuit of Frank, like a machine he ground his way to the top followed by us lesser mortals.
A last day in Vietnam and Dien Bien Phu beckoned. An easier day as we tucked into the standard eggs, bread and jam for breakfast. I’m starting to understand why Orientals in Bath crave noodle bars as they must get bored of our fare. Another lumpy day as we descended fast into the city where the French had lost Indochina and the excellent museum documented the struggle
Ken greeted us at the Laos border, like a Buddha without the bling; he’ll accompany us till the end.
A boat trip to a village homestay and we split into pairs to experience a weaver’s village. The Cockerels started at 2am and the village started to wake up early, so at 0650 I felt like a right lazy toad as I crawled out of my bed on the floor. Everyone else was up and drinking 3 in 1 coffee, coffee, sugar and milk powder added, no choice, I loved it! The women folk were weaving, but where were all the children? I was led to believe that this village was the equivalent of Stanley Livingston’s encounters, but the truth lay in the pile of flip flops next to a threshold as there was the TV and tens of children were ogling the box.
One final coffee at the head man’s shop and off to the boats for a trip down the Nam Ou River. I went in the slower boat which paid off as had fabulous views of the river and boat in front stood up behind the driver. These boats were narrow and long so swaying from side to side wasn’t recommended especially on the grade 2 rapids. Taking back to the boats we stopped for second breakfast at Muang Ngol, now this was a village had figured that the tourists brought the money, so there were buffets, guest houses and loads of English signs. It looked like a place for stoned out backpackers and the scary women with the severe face and dreadlocked hair that we had seen at the border was hammocked here. Ken our guide was caught red handed with 48 kitkats and we munched coffee and kit kats overlooking the river, very Western.
Back on the boats for about 2 hours, great scenery and a few teak plantations; long and straight and planted very close. The boat dropped us off at a settlement and it was a flattish ride along the river valley of the Nam Ou river. The children were more reserved but liked hand slapping as we went past.
Off to Luang Probang, very Western full of coffee shops and exclusive shops all very Western and we rested here for a day.
Micks alarm fired off at 0555, but still a touch early for me, so decided that I’d find the Buddhist Monks. In breaking light it was easy to find, just follow the trail of firing flash bulbs. In lines of orange they came collecting sticky rice and other delicacies from squatting tourists and locals. The first ones close to the palace were well and truly lit up but the second lot near the bottom of the road were much more politely dealt with by the paparazzi.
Back at the hotel for bread and scrambled egg and a 0740 start for what was to be a difficult day. Out of Luang Probang and we picked up the Dutch couple I’d met 3 days before. Eva and Bob had taken the five hour ferry ride to the town but the engine had broken and it was hard benches, all this for 20 euros and the bus was 3 hours and cheaper. Bob made fun of my Mercian saying it was old fashioned whilst riding his Kona and we made fast time to the first tea stop where coffee and biscuits were on offer. There started the first climb, the gradient was fine and we winched our way to the top. The accommodation was basic but perfectly adequate, small room and clean beds. Supper at 1800 was the usual affair of rice, cabbage soup, pork and ginger, mixed vegetables and an omelette washed down with the usual beers, or in my case some kind of Laos yoghurt drink which wasn’t bad at all.
Setting off from this high point the start was downhill, waving at so many children all saying hello and slapping hands and the mountain scenery was splendid, but this ride had its darker side. Undulating for 50km, in reality steeply undulating for 60km as we rose and fell 300-400 metres at a time. A glorious downhill took us to a hot pool and a view of the ‘Kaast’ scenery, lots of Rocky Outcrops
The last days cycling took us to the backpacker joint of Vanvieng and then a final coach transfer to Vietienne, the capital of Laos where we explored the few sites of the city.