It is hard to write about the last week of Laos without feeling some sense of sadness and frustration. I touched on the reason in my last blog when I briefly talked about the impact of massive infrastructure projects on the road in northern Laos. At that point I was trying to understand whether I was just thinking selfishly about my experience as a temporary user of Laos roads. So now I am trying to take a more rounded view.
First of all I should say that China has invested over 7 billion dollars in infrastructure projects in Laos. Laos is a poor country; I think it currently sits 22nd on the world poverty index. John, who was here 12 years ago was quite surprised at how different Laos is now, in terms of infrastructure, on the surface at least, social conditions have improved. Investment and real support is needed to help continue to lift its population out of poverty. At present the only country interested in doing this in any meaningful way is China. The big questions are though: whose interests are being met by the investments?; will the benefits be felt by ordinary Laotians, particularly those who are impacted directly by the large-scale works?; and what are the long-term negative costs of these projects, if there are any?
So, I am not realistically going to answer these questions in this blog. For one thing it would take a lot of research to be able to enter into this in any meaningful way and I have only scratched the surface. Most of this lies in geo-politics which goes beyond just Laos and it would be naive to assume that there is even one right or wrong answer to my questions. I can comment on what I saw as I rode through the north of the country and on the small amount of reading I have done around this, but I do not speak Laotian and I cannot know what the views of people who live around the project are. Here is what I saw:
As we rode north from Luang Prabang the infrastructure work chaos became considerably worse. The road we were following runs alongside a river which feeds into the Mekong. There is a damming project taking place on it. I do not mean there are some small innocuous dams being built; I mean it is being dammed along at least the length of the river where the main road runs (it is the road that goes from Vientiane to the Chinese border at Boten). The work is being carried as far as I could tell by China Power. Now, I should say here that I have no problem with state owned power companies, in fact it is my personal preference (China Power is a Chinese semi state controlled company) and I have no problem with renewable sources of electricity when the effects they bring are genuinely to the benefit of both the local population and the environment. My concern for this damming project is that it is neither of these things. Along this road are many small villages. The people of the villages live largely outdoor lives, often right next to the road. The dam works seem to have brought vast amounts of pollution to these villages through both a massive influx of big-vehicle traffic and cement-work factories on their doorsteps. Everything is covered in cement-dust, including crops that people grow. Children play near or on the roads where huge lorries come rushing through the villages. Land which may recently have been used for growing crops, keeping animals, hunting and fishing in the river is no long available for use. And be assured these villages have a subsistence living. The eco-systems that are formed around the river that feed this valley will be changed by large dam constructions, so they are not necessarily clean, long-term alternative solutions for electricity use.
And on that point, in the many of the villages of the north basic infrastructure is very limited. Cooking is done on a combination of open fires and for some families plug-in items such as kettles and rice-steamers, but possibly not the latter two. Now, the people of the villages are right to expect the same quality of infrastructure as in other places in the world (and I certainly can’t imagine a life without access to modern comforts, even though I superficially chose to give them up for a time) and perhaps they would benefit from cheaper electricity, but it strikes me that they are not suddenly going to swap to cooking on electric cookers which will cost money to buy and to run in a way that their current methods don’t. Some of the villages don’t even have communal stand-pipes, let alone running water to each home and in some we saw people collecting water from streams off the side of the road. What I don’t know as I pass by in a moment is whether there are longer term plans alongside the damming project to invest in these villages to provide for improved basic infrastructure, too.
The further north we went the more destruction was evident, not for the dam, but for the train-line that is going to link China to Thailand (and beyond?). Will the people whose villages it is passing through have access to it, or will it only stop at the big cities? All of the concerns about the damage being done for the damming are visible in the villages affected by the train-line building, too, and it was the train-line that was being built further south, too. But, on the other hand, all of these things have been in evidence in the ‘west’ for decades, so shouldn’t so-called less-developed countries such as Laos have access to infrastructure, too? Should Laos be dependent on dirty coal-based electricity? These projects bring jobs to Laos, not just pollution and upheaval, and maybe they are welcomed by locals. Although, every village we passed through that was being noticeably affected was populated with less than happy looking locals. And it was clear that a lot of the jobs are being filled by employees from China and not local people.
Other questions that I have are: if China owns these investments, what control does Laos have over its new infrastructure? Will there be political leverage levied as a result? Has China loaned Laos part of the money for the investments, to be re-couped at excessively high rates as has allegedly happened in other countries, at high costs to the local economies?
We are back in China now and the attitude towards taming the environment at any cost is evident here, as we have seen before. Where there should be rain-forest there is instead rubber plantations, and there are a multitude of almost empty roads on stilts and through mountains and more are being built everywhere. Concrete walls ‘shield’ us from encroaching nature. Villages are turning into cities. At what cost to our planet is the continuation of concreting over the whole of the natural world (count-down to the climate change tipping point)?
Anyway, I did a bit of reading about these major investment schemes; they are a part of China’s controversial BRI (Belt and road initiative). This is an investment project in less developed countries on an unprecedented scale, and China has been clear that it sees it as an alternative to the globalisation project that the west began in the era of Thatcher and Reagan. Globalisation has been a project to enrich the already rich at the expense of the poorer parts of the world and the main beneficiaries are the major multi-national corporations who now have a lot of control over global politics, so attempts to counter it are in my view welcome and need to be ambitious. However, I am still unconvinced as to whether the BRI is actually a positive counter to globalisation or just a replica of it using the same destructive, aggressive methods. At the very least the environmental destruction that is present in these projects seems ill-conceived when the very real risks of climate change are reaching a tipping point. The countries that China is investing in are the ones who may be at greatest risk currently of resource insecurity (food and water, plus all the natural assets the rest of the world wants to strip), with wars and the necessity of migration to seek security some of the current outcomes. But will destabilising the planet’s climate further actually make those countries more secure and protected?
I don’t know the answers to these questions and to be sure I am aware that I may well be guilty of a Euro-centric perspective, despite being a socialist. I am sure there can be benefits to China’s project; in Laos I saw the current turmoil it is. All in all it is hard to know whether, when the dust settles (pardon the pun) whether this is beneficial to the Laotian economy as a whole and to its village populations who are most directly affected by the projects. creating, too, but then I wasn’t here 12 years ago like John when it was an even poorer country.
Route: Vientianne to Thalat (road 10), to Tha Heua (road 13), to Van Vieng, to Phoun Khoun (the viewing point) to Kasi Hot Spings (way beyond Kasi), to a village that does not show up on google map!, to Kuikacham, to Luang Prabang
We’ve had a rather special Christmas week in Laos with our old friends Annette and Andy (no honestly we’ve just known them a long time, they’re not really old!). Life on the road is an amazing opportunity and I wouldn’t trade it in for life in the ‘real world’, but I do miss my family and friends. So, when Annette hatched the plan of flying out from Malawi, where they live, for some good riding and good winter solstice shenanigans, we were very excited. The 10 days we spent together didn’t disappoint, although they didn’t always go entirely smoothly. Since they left the UK before us, it has been a long time since we have been able to spend so much time together and I am glad to say that it was easy to fall back into the friendship of old (where I generally get the micky taken out of me mercilessly; cheers guys).
What was also nice was seeing South-East Asia through their eyes. We have grown accustomed to how it is and cycling across borders eases the changes, as there are often cross-overs with the country being left behind. Flying from another continent though, means absorbing everything that is different immediately. As Annette and Andy took things in for the first time, I was able to look at things with nearly fresh eyes again. What I really realised was what a safe experience John and I have had cycling for the last 18 months. Annette and Andy had to adjust to a more relaxed approach after becoming completely used to taking nothing for granted in Malawi (we don’t lock the bikes when we go for a coffee, neither do we need to plan in advance where we sleep each night).
We made the decision before Annette and Andy arrived to put our usual budgetary constraints on hold while they were here. It would have been virtually impossible for us not to, and after all they were on a well-earned holiday. Still, I must have seemed like a total bore on occasions when I would be muttering about the extortionate price of things (largely Gin and Tonics, or food in restaurants owned by westerners). Now that they’ve gone I hope John and I haven’t got too accustomed to the luxurious change of lifestyle or we’ll end up having to go home quite soon. Honestly, though our friends were very generous and paid for more than their fair share of drinks and meals this week. Not to mention Annette topping up my drawing materials with some of her own.
When riding with other people for the first time, regardless of whether they are old friends or not, it is important to establish where and how to ride together. John and I were happy to say that since Andy and Annette only had limited time that we would fall into their plans. That’s good, because Andy is always a ‘man with a plan’. Of course, it ultimately became more fluid as the week went on and there was plenty of time off of the bikes to enjoy some natural and urban delights, and importantly, to drink, particularly near the end of our time together when we became holiday-makers as opposed to cycle tourists. I’m sure Annette and Andy will have made up for it on their ride back to Vientianne with some tough long rides.
After negotiating the main route out of Vientianne, we headed onto the road 10 leaving the hustle and bustle behind. There was some beautiful and occasionally steep hills to ride while we got use to the rhythm of two different riding styles. Whilst John and I tend to ride miles apart (normally because I like it that way), stopping every hour or so to meet up and take a break, Annette and Andy ride together and don’t take longer breaks as often as us. They live in Africa and find it is safer to stick together. It took us a couple of days to ease into each others habits and for Andy to relax into the easy South-East Asian vibe.
The next morning was a bit of a faff, it’s true, as we tried to introduce our friends to the joys of the Laotian early morning markets. I’m not sure they enjoyed the banana fritters quite as much as us. And, they certainly weren’t too happy about the puncture Annette’s bike had acquired overnight.
After enjoying the quiet riding on the remainder of road 10 for the rest of the morning, we had to rejoin the main road north (the 13). Immediately we were bombarded with heavy lorry traffic, damaged roads and concrete dust which lasted the rest of the day. As Annette commented ‘you don’t read about this is other people’s cycling blogs for Laos’. They all seem to be about a decade out of date. So, here is the 2018 reality: China investment has arrived. I could go into a lengthy ‘analysis’ of the impact (good and bad) of this. The short version of this is that China appear to be building a motorway from China, via Laos, possibly to Thailand and beyond. The telltale concrete pillars of Chinese sky-high motorways are already in-situ in some places, and the pollution and heavy lorry traffic through the roadside villages is noticeable. I’m not being a cycle-touring NIMBY (‘not in my back yard’), I have a view on the costs versus benefits for the people living here and I really am planning on dedicating the next blog to that. At any rate, Annette was feeling the effects of the dust after just a couple of hours and ended up having to buy a face-mask to wear, so for the people of Laos who live a largely outdoor life away from the cities, I wonder about the health of their lungs right now.
Whilst trying to ignore the traffic, I couldn’t ignore the variable road quality. I did try, which resulted in only my 7th puncture of the whole 18 months on the road. I provided amusement to Annette and Andy by resuming my age-old habit of not liking being ‘audienced’ which made me nearly incompetent at this beginner level cycling task, and I’m sure the tears of laughter were rolling down their cheeks in the realisation that I remain as ridiculous as I have ever been.
The next day provided a morning of easy riding to Van Vieng, followed by half a day of easy tourism. Van Vieng itself has a reputation as an unruly destination for western tourists, where drink, drugs and bouncing down the river on inner tubes are combined in a way that does not take account of the needs of anyone but the holiday-makers. However, in recent years efforts have been made to clean up the town’s image. It certainly was difficult to see beyond the tourism to the Laotian town underneath it, with bars, restaurants and tubing tours aplenty, but the leary, beery, druggy image seems to have evolved into mainstream tourism. At any rate, we took advantage of the opportunity for some nice food (it’s pretty hard to get guaranteed veggie/vegan food away from tourist hubs) and for me and Annette to swim in the river. I do love the opportunity to play in the water with a friend rather than on my own, so thanks Annette. As it got towards evening we found ourselves clambering up to a viewing point across the river. From up there it was actually possible to take in and appreciate the natural beauty that marks Van Vieng out as a special place. It is in the heart of the limestone Karst mountains, and they feel close up in a way that they never did in Vietnam. And then of course, we found an Irish pub to finish the evening with.
After our half day off, we were keen to get a good start, but a hearty breakfast in tourist land slowed us down a bit. Luckily, it was a flat road to Kasi, and thankfully the heavy traffic was left behind. This was the start of beautiful climbing that would eventually take us up and over to Luang Prabang, and I certainly would not have missed the stunning riding of the next few days. Here the villages returned to the diminutive size that we remembered from before Vientianne; we watched a life that is less influenced by the explosion of tourism, and up in the mountains this Saturday it was washing day. Women and children were out at the standpipes taking ‘showers’. The children were unaffected by their nakedness and the women demonstrated the versatility of their sarongs, which they were discreetly washing beneath.
That evening adding to the fantastic riding, we finished just as dusk approached at the Kasi hot springs (many kilometres beyond Kasi, but that’s the name I can find on Google Map). Our cabins looked straight out onto the water and it wasn’t long before we were watching the moon rise from the water of the warm pools, with the mountains silhouetted above us (while the local children swam in the pools below). It was at this point, with a beer in his hand that Andy jinxed himself by saying this was shaping us to be the best Christmas ever, but we weren’t to know that for another day or so.
His misfortune might have been caused by the shorter than planned distance the next day. Not that it was a lazy, short day. In fact it involved a lot of climbing with absolutely fantastic views along the road, as we passed through the mountain scenery. We stopped for a break at the viewing point to look back at the sinuous road we had ridden and to have some lunch. Of course it would have been rude not to chat to the cycle tourists who were going the other way, and before we knew it over an hour had gone by. But there was still more road to climb, along a winding, broad ridge, with little villages lining the road. People live an outside culture, as has been common throughout Laos. From here onwards though, cooking is added to that. Perhaps it was the case further south too, but this was the first day that I noticed that every house/family was cooking sat outside on open fires (in fact, even in Luang Prabang this was the case, although in the city and in some other places the fires are contained in little concrete stoves). It is a bit of a culture shock when the fire or stove is so totally basic and on the side of the road.
Anyway, because of the long lunch we realised we would have to stop in one of the little mountain villages, but there were no signs of guest-houses. We pushed on to the biggest one around and asked about accommodation. Some hand waving directed us to a building with a ‘restaurant’ sign outside. We asked about sleeping and were told ‘yes’. This place was as basic a possible. It was definitely marketed at passing Laotians than tourist trade, but was more comfortable than many a Central Asian place we’d stayed in (yes, there were outside, if very clean, toilets). The food was pretty poor though; I had some badly cooked rice and the other three added eggs to that.
And here is where we think Andy came a cropper. Because the next day he woke up ill, which is rotten luck when you have travelled across the world for a short holiday. At least when it happens to me and John, we know we have all the time in the world. That day at least though, we all had to accept a short ride over to Kuikicham. It was where we had planned to get to the night before, and whilst it was a great shame for Andy to have to spend the afternoon in bed, the guesthouse at Kuikicham was lovely, with a quiet courtyard, where Annette and I could look sit out and draw the view. I’m not really that callous though, I would rather that Andy had not been ill and we’d pedalled passed it instead.
That left us 85 kilometres to cover on Christmas Eve to make it Luang Prabang. Luckily Andy was feeling a lot better, so it seemed realistic. Here was the day I had really been looking forward to; with a 20 kilometre descent to start us off. Downhill is my favourite part of any ride and I took my usual approach of saying ‘ see you at the bottom’ and buggering off ahead like the big kid I still am at heart (I just love having my own space on the downs, I don’t even want to see the other bikes nearby). John had been worried about the hub on his rear wheel the day before and had it been just the two of us, we would have stayed together. And he was right to worry, as I was sitting at the bottom of that first big descent revelling in the simple joy of it, John arrived looking less than happy. Yes, the rear hub had died a death. We took the back wheel off and the very last ball-bearing fell out of what should have been a closed unit. For anyone who is not a bike person, that means the back wheel doesn’t spin anymore! Andy and Annette arrived shortly afterwards and we all did some standing around saying a variation on ‘well, that’s broken’. Luckily we were in a village at the bottom of the valley and John was able to rustle up a ‘taxi’ to drive the two of us to Luang Prabang. We waved goodbye to Andy and Annette who would complete the ride and loaded the bikes. It turned out though, that the price John thought he had negotiated with the driver was wrong. So, after emptying out our wallet, he agreed to take us for 350,000 (about £35). He bumped up his earnings by picking up a broken down motorcyclist en-route, who had to sit on his bike on the back of the flatbed all the way there, for some reason.
On Annette’s orders we found a hotel down by the river, which is the centre of the tourist area of the city. And, by the time they arrived that afternoon, John’s wheel had very nearly been rebuilt by the local bike shop.
Luang Prabang itself has been granted Unesco World Heritage status, which means limited ‘development’ in terms of new buildings. As a result the part of town that we stayed in retains it narrow backstreets with pretty half-timber buildings, with many monasteries. Architecturally, it is a mixture of low key colonial French and traditionally Laotian, and is very green with lots of trees along the waters edge. It is also very touristy and not necessarily what the average cycle tourist is looking for, however, it was perfect for a little Christmas holiday with friends. We ate lots of food, drank a wee bit (Laotian ‘vodka’, coconut and ice, who knew?), and probably spent too much time wandering through the night market looking at pretty things that wouldn’t fit in our panniers.
Christmas day itself was pretty low-key, which is nice when I think of the UK Christmas madness we could have been experiencing; good coffee, lazy lunch chat, a curry and Skyping home pretty much sums it up. Unfortunately Andy was still ill for most of the day, too, so he failed to spend his day drinking lots of beer as planned.
It wasn’t all lazing around though we did two cycling day trips. The first was a 50 km round trip to the Kuang Si waterfalls. The road was a quiet, hilly back road, with small villages and interesting monasteries en-route. I love the sheer artistic variety on offer in Laotian monasteries. These ones had some odd shaped Stupas and informative murals on the walls, not to mention the usual array of multi-headed serpents and scary monsters guarding the doors.
Even my comedy moment falling off the bike didn’t stop me from enjoying the ride. Okay, here’s the story: the road was perfect for practicing my no-handed riding, but it meant I fell behind the others. I decided to catch up, for once not wanting to ride on my own. So, I grabbed the handlebars and sprinted off downhill, failing to notice the trench across the road until I was about to hit it. I managed to avert the disaster of buckling my front-wheel, but I did go over the handlebars and landed with the bike on top of me. A fine sight for the local man on his scooter!
Anyway, the waterfalls, whilst very touristy were delightful if a little chilly. John and Andy once again declined to join us in the water, so Annette and I had a lovely swim in the bright blue pools, with an audience of happy-snappy Chinese tourists.
The next day we took in the other big tourist attraction of the area, the Pak Ou caves, riding the round trip of 60-odd kilometres via as much back road as possible. The first bit was just over the bridge from Luang Prabang. We turned away from the main road for a few kilometres through the part of town where the fabric the area is famous for are woven on hand-looms and hand-made paper dries out on frames in the sun. And, after a little bit back on the main road again, it is possible to do the last 10 kilometres on a very quiet untarmacced road that winds along with forest either side and the Mekong just below us. A five minute ferry ride took us over to the two caves. On the steps leading up to them locals sell tiny birds in tiny wicker cages, for tourists to release back into the wild. Andy explained that Buddhists believe they gain ‘merit’ by either doing good or enabling other people to do good (I think that’s right), and releasing the birds is an act of good. It doesn’t really make any sense to me, because catching them in the first place isn’t very good. Of course, we did not partake, but headed up to see the 4500 Buddha statues that adorn the caves. These Buddhas have been placed here over the course of the last couple of centuries and it really is an intriguing thing to visit. It was well worth the effort to see them.
Sadly the next day we had to say goodbye to our good friends. It really was one of my favourite Christmases. Hopefully we’ll get to do some more riding together soon.
Route: Savannakhet to Nong Bok, to Thakhek, to Vieng Kham, to Paksan, to Pak Ngum, to Vientiane
One country, two cities, connected by one river, but oh so different. This week saw us leave sleepy Savannakhet, Laos’ second biggest city and ride up the road to Vientianne, the capital of Laos. In contrast to Savannakhet, Vientiane is not sleepy. As we approached it we were struck by the plethora of shiny new high-rise building projects, which we speculated were probably being funded by Chinese investment (which amounts in the billions across the country). They are the kind of buildings that have not existed since leaving coastal Vietnam. In it’s centre it is a bright modern tourist hub. Neither of these things are surprising, it is the capital city after all; although it was a bit of a shock to John who was here 12 years ago when it was a much quieter place. Truth be told, compared to the western Chinese provincial capitals and Hanoi, Vientiane still feels quite small. That it is touristy focused in it’s centre actually makes it feel a bit bland compared to Savannakhet and Thakhek which we visited a few days ago. The best bit is the broad-walk along the Mekong, which wakes up for tourists and locals alike after dark, when the night-time market opens, selling everything you could possibly need or want (like all good markets). From our window we can hear the popping of balloons as middle-aged Dads throw darts to try and win their small children giant teddy-bears.
That Laos feels less poor than it did when John was last here is great, as long as the wealth that is being invested is for the betterment of the quality of life of the population. Whether that is the case though, is not something I can answer. It has definitely felt that in the ride this week along the Mekong Valley region, the population has a seemingly better standard of living than in the through-towns and villages we passed last week.
The first two days out of Savannakhet were delightful actually. We stayed on the meandering old main road, rather than heading back to the faster, more direct highway to Vientiane. This passed through more small, quiet villages that felt established, comfortable and friendly. The riding was easy and fun after the harsh heat of last week.
Our second day we were motivated for our early starts again and by lunchtime we were buying fritters and barbecued sweetcorn at the stands that operate outside of the high-schools (which were all in one central point) in Thakhek. This was a significantly bigger town than we’d passed through since Savannakhet and we decided to head down to the river to relax for a while. The boardwalk was lovely, with a big monastery/temple complex and small restaurants overlooking the river. Actually, it sits halfway between the feel of Savannakhet and Vientiane, which is just perfect. We quickly made the decision to stay and whiled away a lovely afternoon. I had an hour sat opposite the temple drawing the fantastic 3-headed serpents (or maybe dragons?) that adorned the stairways. I even managed not to run away when the man on the food stall opposite came across the road to peer over my shoulder whilst I was drawing (normally a major no-no for me).
The afternoon was enough time to enjoy the town and then it was time to hot-foot it up the road. The next four days saw us back on the main highway, but of course, this being Laos, it was on the main part still a relatively small road, where until the day before the capital the traffic consisted of bikes and lorries. Although the road quality deteriorated around specific transport hot-spots (quarries and crossroads towards another border with Vietnam), it was fast riding. We knocked off 105 kilometres on leaving Thakhek , followed by two 90 kilometre days. Given that we had been suffering so much from the humidity last week, and it has been a while since we’ve genuinely made any effort to make distance, this seemed like quite an achievement. I don’t always enjoy those kind of rides. I tend to prefer the opportunity to take the world around me in and feel that I am not just number-crunching when we get mileage-focused. But, on those days the riding was just straightforward and I let my mind drift, which as usual means day-dreaming about future art projects which may or may not ever be realised! I find those miles just fly by when I am in that mind-set.
But why rush, rather than coming off of the road and exploring some more? Well, that is because today we are meeting our wonderful friends Annette and Andy in Vientiane. They have flown over from Malawi and we are going to have a week riding with them. It is such an exciting thing for us, much as we love this journey, it is positive to change things up from time-to-time and riding with other people is one of the best ways to do that. Plus, at the risk of swelling their heads too much, Annette and Andy are two of my favourite people, so I can’t wait for them to wipe the sleep out of their eyes after being delayed on their flights yesterday, so that we can enjoy the road together. Of course their bikes will be much lighter than ours, so when Andy’s not looking I’m definitely going to be slipping some rocks into the bottom of his panniers. It’s going to be lots of fun.
In the meantime, we’ve made the effort to get a little bike service, a haircut (for me) and to go out for an Indian meal. After all we eat noodles and fritters most days, so why not indulge in the ‘international’ cuisine that is on offer to tourists in this ‘kinda could be anywhere (if it wasn’t for all the beautiful temples!)’ city centre.
And for a short time we get to share all our enthusiasm for riding in Laos with our friends. What in life could be nicer?
Route: Dong Ha to Khe Sanh to Lao Bao border to Xepon to Tongphaxay to Atsaphangthong to Savannakhet
After waving ‘see you later’ to the sea, we headed inland from Dong Ha towards the Vietnam/Laos border. It is only a journey of 80 kilometres and actually, after 20 the hustle and bustle of the main road slipped away, leaving us with a quieter Vietnam to finish off with. Even though this meant a little bit of pedalling uphill for the first time in over a fortnight, it was immediately more relaxing and yet invigorating to ride. I had a smile on my face. In the end though we decided not to ride all the way to the border, but to stop short at the bigger town 20 kilometres further back. My last evening in Vietnam involved a walk into town to the market to change some of our remaining Dong into Dollars at the local gold shop so that we had enough to pay for the visas the next day. As I walked back to the guest-house I enjoyed that final Vietnamese evening with its pink dusk glow.
We figured we’d get an early start the next morning in order to make the most of the border crossing day, but that didn’t happen. We’ve become a bit soft of late it seems. We’d only realise how soft later that day. By the time we’d ridden to the border, spent the last of our small change and got rid of the very last of our Dong, the morning was moving along. It was time to say ‘goodbye Vietnam’ ‘Sabadee (hello) Laos’. Luckily it was one of those super-easy border crossings and we actually had to remind ourselves that at borders we do not leave our bikes unattended, ever (unlike most days where our bikes are often leaned complacently against railings of shops and cafes while we disappear inside). There was even a Laos bank branch inside the border area to change the first of our Dollars into Kip (millionaires again!). So, by lunchtime we were through, into country number 24.
I was struck by the change immediately, although of course, I will struggle to do justice with my words to that change. The border town on the Vietnamese side wasn’t overly developed, but the Laotian side was less so. It was just a tiny town and it was the biggest thing for a while. There are no two ways about it, landlocked Laos is the poor neighbour around here. It was pretty clear too, that beyond this tarmacced trunk road that we were riding, there was a lot of dirt road. The traffic, which hadn’t exactly been heavy in Vietnam dropped off dramatically and cars in particular were even more replaced by bikes, flat-bed trailer buses and little tractor buses. Kids here don’t ride electric scooters like they do over the border, no it’s back to push-bikes here.
It is not that the road from the border had nothing along it, actually there is a constant flow of villages, with traditional wooded and bamboo stilted houses lining the road. And, there were plenty of people around in the villages, it was just that since it was now the afternoon, they were all busy enjoying the shade of the stilted buildings, watching us roll by, shouting ‘sabadee’ and amusingly ‘goodbye’. The children were particularly excited by this, waving and giggling. I know this is a theme on this trip, but I do still get pleasure out of the entertainment value we are to small children, where-ever we travel.
Most of the villages had a little shop or a bar, which was handy, because it was hot. Oh, it was hot, and did I mention the humidity. See that early start we thought we’d get, well it might have been a good idea, because it was brutal. Once again we had sweat pouring off of us whether we were moving or not (and often it’s worse when we’re not moving), but we managed to knock out 40-odd kilometres before crawling into a hotel in the first big town we came to. This might have affected our savviness, because I am still not sure how much we paid for that room, the old woman just kept shifting the notes around until we gave in and slipped into the dark, sweet shade of the room. We didn’t even ask for a kettle for our noodles, we just wanted shade.
Luckily, all of the slightly bigger towns along this road are set up in the same fashion and it wasn’t hard for me to wander along to what central hub there was, to the market. I was pleasantly surprised by the availability of good veg and with a lot of gesticulating at various pots and pans I got us some rice from a cafe to break up the monotony of noodles. It just wasn’t quite as cheap as we’d expected it to be though. Still it always takes a couple of days riding to get used to what the real prices of things are when nothing is labelled.
The next day we had a plan. It was to avoid some of the heat of the afternoon. It involved an early start. Well okay, getting out the door by half eight wasn’t really early and we still had to get breakfast. That took a good bit longer than planned as trying to negotiate rice without meat stock in it just didn’t go anywhere. So John paid the outrageous price of £1.50 for badly cooked noodles (there is a foreign NGO based nearby, always a good reason for the local prices being hiked up I reckon), after which we found a decent breakfast at the market (fried bread in a baguette is a perfect start to the day).
And so, that early start was slipping away from us and yes we did suffer for that. It took about 5 minutes for me to realise that the sun-cream would be utterly useless (no surprises there) as the sweat swept it off of my face and that was on this easy, flat riding. I am glad that this section doesn’t involve going uphill! Still, we braved that humidity and 34 degree heat, while the locals in the villages looked at us like the fools we are for being out of the shade in the afternoon. Tomorrow we said we’ll get it right.
Getting it right meant out of the room by 7.30 and finished for the day by lunchtime. It was made easier by getting used to Laos a little bit. This road has a pattern to it, with the sleepy villages interspersed with slightly less sleepy towns at nice, regular intervals, so we already had found our pattern to pedal-turning. And a half day was lovely. After peeling off our soggy riding kit, we took a stroll around the little town (it didn’t take long), before I abandoned John back to the shade and took myself off to the river. I had a delightful swim in the luke-warm, slow-moving water, before heading back to read my book on the porch of our room (Well porch really means just outside the door. Guest-houses here look a little like motels; single story blocks of rooms around a central courtyard).
At last the routine kicks in. We finally got a kettle in the room, and the next morning I was up and making coffee before 7, so we were out the door by half past fully caffeinated (great for hydration, I hear you say) and straight into the market for breakfast. It is amazing to see the change that had come over the place from the previous afternoon. It was alive. This is when Laos is active, in the cool morning and the market is the place to be. The poor pickings of yesterday were gone and what had been a virtually deserted courtyard, was filled with stalls. It felt good to be here. Still, with fried rice ball baguettes for breakfast (tasty but unhealthy) I am starting to think it will be good when we finally get gas for our stove again (and that probably won’t be until China in January). But, then we’ll miss the opportunity to people-watch as the local buses stop at the market for people to pick up breakfast. I love this hustle and bustle as much as I love lazy afternoons.
We rode to Savannakhet yesterday. It is the 2nd biggest city in Laos, after the capital Vientianne. It sits on the mighty river Mekong, which marks the border with Thailand. And halfway there the signs of life did increase; Seno felt like a significantly busier town than we had experienced since crossing the border, but then it is a four-way junction where the north-south road bisects the east-west one we were riding on. To be honest Savannakhet is a bit of a detour as we will be riding north tomorrow and we could have done that without the additional 30 kilometres to Savannakhet, but why not? When I say city, it doesn’t necessarily feel like a city. Yes it has a population of 120,000, but it feels like there is no real central area to the gridded old colonial part of the town we are in, alongside the Mekong. The outlying areas, which have clearly grown since the original city was built have more of a busy city life to them, and we might find tomorrow that the area by the border crossing to Thailand is ‘citified’. But, actually I like this sleepy vibe. I had enough time yesterday afternoon to wander around and see what little there was to see, and to revisit it again today, plus visit the tiny dinosaur museum around the corner (apparently, there are a lot of dinousaur remains in this region). What’s not to like here? It works for me as a day off; no rushing around, just watching the world go by.
So far, I like Laos. I just need to stop sweating so much.
Route: Bac Hai to Cam Nhuong to aong the AH1 and QL1 to Canh Duong to Dong Hoi to Bai Tam Hai Ninh and back to the AH1 and then the QL1 to Ho Xa to Vinh Moc to Ho Xa to Hien Luong to Ha Loi Thuong
A change has come over our habits since entering Vietnam. I know I have mentioned in my last post that camping is incredibly difficult here, particularly as we are choosing to go coastal. However, I don’t think either of us anticipated just how different our experience would be once we took to sleeping indoors every night again. It is more than having to end our days riding in urban settings, because often we camp near to towns and villages anyway. So, I am trying to think about what it actually is and I think it is that change from being mostly outdoors to being mostly indoors (it is dark here by 5.30), and the change that has on our habits. We have reverted to habits we had at home, that for the last 17 months we had reserved for days off only; namely the amount of time we spend online. I dislike this. It was one of the reasons that I wanted to head out on the road in the first place. However many interests I had at home, it was easier at the end of the working day to waste large amounts of my time surfing the net. And now, even though I am not drained by working, I still find myself spending too much of my precious time staring at the screen. I want to spend time interacting with the places I am travelling through, and of course I do, but not often after dark.
This is true in the tent, too, but then there is more time spent in the semi-outside environment and that is pretty all-consuming, whether it be finding and setting camp at dusk, camp cooking, watching the drip forming above my head, trying to get comfy on less than flat ground, or in fact listening to the wind from the comfort of a sleeping bag or getting up for an early morning swim when (rarely) camped next to a river. All of these things are engaging and of course, we switched off from them by listening to podcasts, watching films or reading, but having the full range of indoor technology on-tap for over 12 hours a day is less satisfying. So, I have to force myself to switch the computer off just like being in the UK, and to spend more time drawing in the evenings, which of course I love. And, I am racing through all of the free books I have stored on the Kobo.
On the plus side, we smell less bad. And it is nice to have a bit more space, after all we have been in each other’s exclusive company for a long time and we have discovered that we are both very, very territorial (who’d have known that after 10+ years together) and we have been known to take very trivial things very seriously the longer we’ve been on the road (Arggh).
There are other side effects, too. One is that we have become ‘pot-noodle’ eaters. Certainly not a food choice I went in ever in the UK, but let me explain. Having been forced to abandon our multi-fuel stove, we are reduced to a gas canister variety. We can’t get the gas canisters in Vietnam. We tried the ‘one hot meal a day’ from a local eatery option, but it was spectacularly hit-and-miss getting a vegan meal. So now we ask at where-ever we are staying for hot water, either in the form of a kettle or a big flask. Then we are able to drink coffee to our hearts contents, and to avail ourselves of the Vietnamese dish known as Pho, or noodle soup to you and me. This does not actually involve buying pot-noodles, but all of the ingredients required to make noodle soup without having to worry about the pesky little problem of dead animals turning up in our dinner.
The other side effect is that since we are paying (very cheaply) for a room every night, we don’t actually have to move on unless we really want to. Which is why we haven’t ridden very far this week. This is great, as I am delighted about being by the sea (I may have mentioned this before) and almost resent the necessity to ride away from it, particularly when there is no coastal road. My two days last week being a traditional beach tourist were delightful, but then again so was finding a beach one lunchtime and spending an hour swimming before carrying on riding.
But, the thing that has actually slowed us down has been the weather. November in Vietnam is the rainy season, and until this week we had done superbly at finding good weather. But all of that has changed now. The weather caught up with us on the way to Dong Hoi; we ended up spending three nights there and came to fully appreciate the benefits of no-camping cycle touring. We’ve done it again today, too. Now this might seem spectacularly lazy, but southern Vietnam has been hit by tropical storms for the last week and cycling down to meet them seems unnecessary. And, I for one love walking along a wild, wet and windy beach for hours with my sandals in my hand, knee deep in water, not minding the waves that splash my shorts because after all I’m getting soaked by the rain anyway, and I get to dry off in the hotel, not the tent for a change. Luxury.
In among this laziness we did do some riding last week. On almost every occasion we’ve got lost in the myriad little roads down near the sea that don’t show up on our maps. With no big distances to achieve and little agenda, these proved to be less stressful diversions than they might normally be (flat roads help, too). We even found ourselves back in a spot we’d stopped at an hour earlier one day. The woman in the field must have thought we were quite bonkers.
There was also the day when we decided to take the coastal road in the rain for 20 kilometres, assuming that it would be tarmac, only to discover it was dirt. There’s nothing quite like wet dirt to really mess up your bike. I suppose the plus point of this was that we actually went and found a car-wash service for the bikes instead of another day going by of saying ‘we really must get the bikes cleaned…’.
In among all of this slow drifting, we have also taken the time for some cultural activity. For a start the time in the evenings has allowed us to read up a little bit about Vietnamese history. I thought that 20 years of war was hideous (1955-75), but what I hadn’t realised was that this was straight of the back of the ‘first Indochina war’ which in the most simplified terms ran from the end of the second world war until the commencement of the Vietnam war (I know the ins and outs are complicated, I’m not aiming for a history lesson here). It is mind-boggling to try and comprehend that length of conflict. I really can’t do it. Visiting the Vinh Moc tunnel system (miles of tunnels run from the sea in the DMZ area of central Vietnam where civilians lived when the threat above ground was too high), or passing over the Hien Luong bridge (which marked the official border between north and south Vietnam) made us reflect again and again about that which we can’t ever really grasp.
Next week we will find ourselves riding along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and along much of the length of the DMZ, towards the Laos border, so I expect my brain will continue to be occupied with these thoughts, whilst in the evenings I will at least make use of ready access to the internet to actually try and educate myself (when I can drag myself away from the less noble usage of Facebook, of course).
I’ll be sad to leave the sea (albeit temporarily), but it will be good to stretch the legs again, and who knows we might even get to put the tent up again soon.
Hekou (China)-Lao Cai (Vietnam) to Sapa to Gia Phu to Yen Bai to Hanoi to the Ho Chi Minh Highway to Tan Ky to Nam Dan to Ha Tinh (Via AH15 and QL1A) to Dai Hai
Are we nearly there yet? Are we nearly there yet? Are we nearly there yet?
I think I got a bit obsessed after eight months away from it, with the thought of being back by the sea, finally, at last. Did I mention it has been eight months since we left the Black Sea in Georgia (March 2018)? Oh okay, yes I did.
So, with only a one month visa in our hands when we crossed the Vietnamese border into Lao Cai, in my mind we were heading to the sea. Except I heard that the mountains around Sapa were a really cool place to visit first and that would be a little two day diversion before heading down the Red River to the sea. But then who knew when we factored that in that it would take a week just to get to Hanoi. And then, instead of going straight to the coast of course we should head along the Hoi Chi Minh Highway for a few days to Kilometre Zero so that we could try to understand some of the historical context of the Vietnam war.
After all that, I started to panic a little bit, worrying that by the time the visa ran out, we still wouldn’t have seen the sea. So, at Kilometre Zero instead of following the Hoi Chi Minh Highway onto what I’m sure would be a really interesting, but non-coastal ride for another week, we turned towards the sea and now we are here. And I have swam in the sea and it was warm and all is good in my world.
Luckily for me, John was more than happy to follow my obsessive need to see the sea, although I’m sure he would have been just as happy on the Ho Chi Minh Highway where the actual riding is probably more interesting. Thanks John, you’re the best.
That’s the short version of our first two weeks in Vietnam, if you’re not too interested in the details this is a good time to stop reading!
Clearly the ideal place to have an international customs check is on the first floor of an office block. It is perfect for people carrying lots of baggage across the border. And escalators are the ideal way to access the said customs check, particularly with fully laden touring bikes. To be fair the Chinese authorities did put in a lift for people who couldn’t use the escalators, but we didn’t see that. John made the escalator look so easy with the bike that I put aside my natural suspicion of the merits of this method of transport and wheeled my bike on. It didn’t go well and there was a lot of desperately stopping the bike from tumbling to the bottom, shouting at John to help, moments of panic as the top of the escalator approached without having been able to haul the bike upright and finally relief when John was able to grab the bike and haul it off before my feet got eaten by the top of the escalator. Say goodbye to China!
And, hello Vietnam:
The first big difference we noticed was how little security there was on this side of the border… and that was before we even left the border control area. We just wheeled the bikes out once our passports and visas were checked without anyone even glancing at them.
The second change was coffee. There it was the magical black gold, available everywhere and it didn’t cost three quid a cup either. It would have been rude not to partake after three months of it being virtually non-existent. Although what we didn’t realise for the first few days in Vietnam is that the correct way to drink coffee here is iced, not hot, which makes perfect sense in a such a humid country.
The third thing of note was that whilst people here were still curious about seeing us on our bikes, there was less of the obtrusive staring that we have become familiar with in China. Over the last two weeks in fact, we have returned to a world of having to say ‘hello’ to every child and teenager who spots us, as they shout over to us enthusiastically attempting to practice their English skills. And often, there are an equal number of adults shouting ‘hello’ too, particularly in small places. But minus the extreme staring (except for the boy in the photo below!). After all, Western tourists are pretty common in Vietnam.
The forth thing I noticed before even leaving Lao Cai: the traffic. Whilst ostensibly similar to China, with two wheels being the major form of transport for most ordinary people (even more so here than in China), the polite, patient, rule-abiding style of driving/riding had gone. Vietnamese driving is fast-paced and pushy. Right from the outset I needed to up my game a little bit to hold my ground in this territory. Busy European roads are a dim and distant memory after all. Once my brain clicked into gear though, I did enjoy the vast reduction of beeping horns since crossing the border though.
Anyhow, once the coffee was drunk and the traffic senses were switched on it was time to concentrate on pedalling uphill towards Sapa, which is a mountain town at an elevation of 1500 metres above sea level, overlooked by Vietnam’s highest mountain, Fansipan. The hillsides around the town are renowned for their terraced paddy-fields which are carved into them, creating gorgeous cascading patterns flowing down the hills. Even though November is not the best month for seeing them as they have been harvested already, they really were breath-taking.
The town of Sapa itself felt like a bit of an overpriced tourist trap, so we headed straight through and found some nice camping overlooking the hills out the other side. After all, it really was the views of the paddy fields that had drawn us up here. That and the great riding back down the hill again, via the red dirt/broken tarmacced back road that carved down the hillside for two days, through little villages (with some of the most spectacular paddy fields) where Water-Buffalo and pigs wallowed in the mud on the side of the road. And, where we got to take a lovely swim in a small river, our first since leaving Kyrgyzstan nearly four months ago. Those two days were certainly some of the most enjoyable days riding I have done in a while. We even camped in a tiny banana plantation one night, where one friendly local popped in for a chat the next morning while we packed up.
As delightful as that riding was, we timed getting back onto the better tarmac well, as every day after that until reaching Hanoi saw some rain. And, rain on dirt roads is not a bike-friendly scenario. This proved another first for me. In all the time on the road (seventeen months) I have never before experienced warm rain, but here it was. When the skies opened it was simply an opportunity to have fresh water rinse away the sweat that was pouring off of me constantly; a refreshing option. Unexpectedly, the rain never lasted long anyway, so often we were just beckoned into little shops to take shelter until it passed instead. So much for winter (sorry to anyone at home shivering as they read!), just like last year we’re choosing a November avoidance strategy.
Although we were heading down-river towards Hanoi, the road was fairly undulating and we felt like we were still having to work pretty hard, although maybe getting used to the humidity was a part of that, too. On this section of road we experienced another first, although it was a less welcome one. The closer towards Hanoi we got, the less uncultivated space we found. Vietnam has a population of 95 million, so unsurprisingly it is not always easy to find somewhere to camp. On our forth night in the country we got caught out and found ourselves searching for suitable camping near to a large town that wasn’t marked on our map. This is not something unheard of and we normally manage to scratch a camp somewhere, as we thought we had managed this night. But, we had barely finished washing up from dinner and getting comfy for the evening when the police turned up. It transpired that here in Vietnam people are more than happy to call them in to dislodge unwanted campers, in-spite of an otherwise friendly welcome. We were duly escorted to the nearest hotel back in the town. To our surprise we found that it only cost £8.50 for the night. It wasn’t what we wanted to do, but it also wasn’t the end of the world either, particularly as we accurately guessed that we wouldn’t be able to camp the next night as we would be on the outskirts of Hanoi. A rough guide to hotel prices was useful (and interestingly it is still the most expensive placed we have stayed so far).
Hanoi itself was a pleasant place to be for a couple of nights. Although as is often the case for us in big cities it was low-key. We did nothing more mind-blowing than wandering around the ‘French Quarter’, watching the world go by at the little lake we were staying next to and eating copious amounts of sweetcorn, sweet-potato, banana, and rice&beans fritters. Deep-fried, battered (non-egg batter, the woman spoke good English) fruit and vegetables, what’s not to like? We also stayed at a ‘home-stay’ rather than a hotel or guest house. This was interesting as Tony, the owner of the home-stay invited us to have dinner with the family and spoke good enough English that we could have a conversation about life in Vietnam. We were surprised to find out that all education has to be paid for directly, which explains why so many children in the rural areas only go to school in the morning.
By the time we were in Hanoi a week had already passed and we needed to make some decisions about how best to spend our remaining three-and-a-half weeks of visa time. Originally we had planned to take the train down to Ho Chi Minh city (Saigon) and ride back up the coast to re-enter China. However, it was now apparent to us that we had underestimated the scale of the country for riding. Yes, it is true we could have stuck to this plan and jumped on an extra train if we felt we were running short of days. But that felt like an unsatisfactory way of riding. Whilst we don’t mind jumping on trains, it is definitely nicer to ride. Also the train journey to Ho Chi Minh is 31 hours, so we would lose a day and a half. We decided against this. Instead we decided to stay inland for a little bit longer and ride down the Ho Chi Minh Highway, before heading to the coast. This would allow us to ride through some naturally beautiful scenery and also to get a bit more insight into the region where the Northern Vietnamese troops were defending their territory during the Vietnam war.
Of course, neither the history nor the scenery were evident getting out of Hanoi. It is like riding out of any city; it takes longer than the distance would do if there wasn’t a city in the way. And it is busy with two-wheeled traffic. Actually it was easier than the cycle through the city centre on the way in, so I had an attempt at videoing, but I was holding the camera too low, so I’ll have to give it another try at some other time.
No camping take two:
Actually we did alright distance-wise that day. My mania-like obsession with making the most of our visa (otherwise known as getting to the sea) might have helped, but so did the flat roads. We got to a point where it was quiet enough that we thought that we’d get the tent back out, at a lovely spot down by a river. The locals knew we were there and didn’t seem bothered by us, and we got a good night’s sleep. It was only after I had been for a 7 AM swim (heaven) in the river, that a young man turned up demanding we leave. Now as it happened, we were already packing our bags. So, after John enquired on what authority he was asking us to leave, we simply got on with packing while he awkwardly tried to hurry us along. He showed signs of impatience when I was brushing my teeth, so John repeated his enquiries. The man said he was a police officer, but the only evidence to support that was that he was wearing green trousers, which is hardly uncommon here. After John pointed out that he had no ID and was wearing a fashion T-shirt and that basically he had no authority, the man rather sheepishly got back on his motorbike and left. We won the day, but it takes the edge off of camping and when we add that to the broken tent zips and the cheap price of guest-houses, we have basically given up on camping for now. Unless we find somewhere really quiet that is.
Aside from that, the scenery to the south of Hanoi is pretty stunning. I think the technical term is Karst, which are giant (hill-sized) limestone outcrops that rise up out of an otherwise flat landscape. Closest to Hanoi the limestone is quarried and much of the Karst landscape is denuded, but as the days rolled by, the Karst hills became more pristine where they are close to or in the national parks that protect them. These ones are completely covered in trees and the whole landscape is a sea of green mounds. Apparently there are primates in these forests, but it would probably be necessary to be away from the main road to see them.
War, what is it good for?
After a few days of riding this green highway, enjoying the passing interactions with friendly locals, we made it to Tan Ky. This is otherwise known as Kilometre Zero. This was an important supply line during the Vietnam war and was bombed heavily by the US military. As we cycled the serene landscape towards Tan Ky, both John and I were independently thinking about what it must have been to live through this era in Vietnamese history. It is incredible to think now that the Vietnam war lasted for 20 years (1955-1975). How does a nation survive that level of brutal devastation? Perhaps it was pertinent that we passed through on the week of Remembrance Sunday, 100 years after the end of the First World War. During this trip we have visited Ypres, travelled through the Balkans and arrived in Turkey the same week that they launched the devastating offensive against Kurds in Syria. And now we are in a country that seems to have moved on from a war, the scale of which is unimaginable to me. I hope that in my lifetime it will be possible to remember the horrors of war as something from the past, but with so many conflicts continuing in the world at present (and so many of them being fuelled by the poppy wearing West) the evidence is not promising at the moment.
All John and I can do right now though, is to try not to behave like overbearing, colonialist-type westerners as we travel around the world, whilst being fully aware that it is our western ‘privilege’ that allows us access to this journey we are on.
To the sea, at last:
So, we continued on our way, but having paid our respects in our heads at Kilometre Zero, we turned south-east away from the Ho Chi Minh Highway and towards the sea. After two days we made it to the city of Hai Tinh. It is a provincial capital of 1,000000 people, but it feels smaller than that. To be honest we stayed simply as a means of accessing the sea the next day and within half an hour of being on our bikes the next morning we had made it to the strip of white sandy beach and blue-green waters of the South China Sea at Dai Hai. The sleepy village we are in has nothing more than a couple of tiny shops, a fish restaurant/bar and the guest-house we are staying in. It is my idea of perfect. Admittedly we should have bought some food before leaving the city as there is not a vegetable for sale anywhere, and fruit requires a ten minute cycle, but that’s okay. We’ve had two days of quality beach time; no other tourists around and the water is warm. And to top it off, when we went to the bar for a drink tonight (we don’t expect to get vegan food in a fish restaurant), the owners invited us to join them or their dinner. Excluding the fish, there was rice, tofu and salad, so it was pretty much all we wanted anyway. We couldn’t ask for anything more really, except maybe an extra few weeks on the visa so we could experience this country more fully.