First ride in Peoples Democratic Republic of Laos. 15th Jan.

Screen Shot 2016-01-15 at 18.29.26

First day of cycling in Laos. A beast. over 1000m climbing.

 

P1110148

First corner in Laos. Oops. Only happened yesterday, but rather common apparently. Shocking.

P1110156

Local girls, dressing up for the boys, as they do all over the world.

IMG_3610

Younger boys watching.

 

Early breakfast of noodle soup with the government workers before transferring over the border crossing into Laos.  Goodbye Zan, hello Loun.  Visa was expensive at $45 each, but, three different guards looked approvingly at our passports and let us through.  Linda desperate for coffee but, no.  On to bikes and welcome to the Laos roads.  Dusty, gravelly and pot-holed they are.  Loun, helpfully, showed us the climbs for the day on paper, rather harder than cycled so far in Vietnam.

Around the first bend we were shocked to see a huge lorry had fallen over the edge of the narrow road.  Swiftly followed by two dead chickens on the road and a kamakazee cockerel under Paul’s wheels.  Paul was ok but we’re not sure about the cockerel.  The downhills are great but last a tenth of the time of the uphills, sadly.  Temperature is already 8 degrees warmer than in Vietnam and by lunch the sun broke through.  The world is a different place with sunshine.  We cycled through rural villages, lots of really friendly children shouting sabaidee and hello.  These are new words for us to learn now having just mastered Cam on and Xin Chao.  All very confusing for us non-linguists.

Before our guest house in Vieng Xai, a final kick in the legs, a nasty hill.  However, a hot shower and life is much better.  The shower was in a wet room ie the toilet bowl leaks onto the floor when flushed and the shower doesn’t drain anywhere, anyway.  We were met by Loun for supper up the road, sticky rice and beef salad.  The art is to roll a smallish ball of rice between your fingers and then mush the beef into it.  Very filling and helpfully washed down with Lao beer at £1 for a large bottle, and jolly good.  As yet, we have no kip, which is the Laos currency, so rather sheepishly have to borrow money off our guide.  He charges one beer, happy to pay.

Shared supper with Isabelle, an adventurous 20 year-old gap student, travelling alone for four months.

Bed, damp, cold, no wi-fi,  but no karaoke.  All good.

Mai Chau to almost Laos. 14th Jan.

Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 17.18.02

Much harder day. Hilly. Rainy. Muddy. Foggy. Could be the UK. Except for the banana trees. And loads of other stuff.

P1110132

Foggy day. Great views. There, but not seen. Spots are not serious. Does rather sum up the day.

P1110143

The Horse river.

P1110128

Millions of bamboo chop sticks.

IMG_3581

Welcome Break. Top of a big hill. Almost warm.

IMG_3587

Rice fields, with no rice as it’s winter.

P1110140

Muddy Zan. Great guide. Jolly fast up hills.

Paul with Kids

Paul with interested kids. We seem to attract this sort of attention. Must be our humour and good looks.

Banana pancakes and omelettes for breakfast, doesn’t get much better.  50% chance of rain forecast. We lose the bet and it’s wet for our 8:00 am kick off.  Gentle off-roading through the beautiful village and paddy fields before our first big climb.  Thai minority villagers are so friendly, and expert at weaving colourful clothes. No space on the bikes, sadly. Passed through villages processing bamboo into chopsticks. It’s a big industry. Could probably be automated, but it employs large numbers of people, although using big saws to chop up the bamboo isn’t without risk to fingers. Health and safety isn’t so strong here.

14 Km to the top of the mountain, sheer drops to the side but couldn’t see them as so foggy.  Very little traffic or sounds as we pedalled upwards.   Lunch before our downhill cruise, perched on stools in a roadside shop where we were provided  with a thermos of hot water to make our coffee. Grand.  Added a couple more layers before heading down through the fog.  Feel we’re missing out on some amazing scenery but the cool temps make the cycling so much easier than in the summer heat and humidity.

Huge stretches of newly tarmac’d road make for some great cycling in between the construction lorries.  Final transfer on the bus, close to the border to a big new hotel.  Bit worried about the wedding party next door but were reassured they would be finished by 9pm.  Hadn’t anticipated the karaoke across the road, right outside our hotel window (think of the worst of  X factor contestants, amplified. A lot).

It’s now 9.30 and the Karaoke is getting noisier, and even less tuneful, if possible.

Hey ho. Might go and join them. Probably not.

From Cuc Phuong to Mai Chau. 13th Jan.

Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 18.13.36

P1110071

Not an illness, lunch for locals. Still alive.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

If you don’t like baby eels, how about cow’s stomach or clotted blood? Yum, yum.

P1110088

Foggy, cold, wet. Could be England.

One of best breakfasts with warm crusty bread that wasn’t sweet, stuffed with an omelette.  Fairly flat cycling through the villages, stopping at a local market, selling a bit of everything. Well, bits of a cow that usually get put back into the animal food chain.  The Vietnamese taste buds favour the extremes of sweetness with very sour.  Paul not a fan of their tiny bitter apples.  Vietnamese ladies will drink vinegar believing it will keep them slim.  Another bowl of ba pho (beef and noodle soup) for lunch at a local restaurant.  The flavour enhanced by slipping in a chilli or two – very hot!

Cycling through the minority villages of the Muong.  Stopped for a roadside snack: suck on some sugar cane and munch on a chunk of sweet corn baked on their roadside fire.  Pretty wet by this point from heavy drizzle cycling along part of the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Treated to a terrific downhill heading towards our ecolodge.  Big excitement with bus losing brakes and powering down the hill screaming past Paul, smashing through the roadside barrier and dropping into mountainside drainage ditch. Phew.

Approach to Mai Chau Eco-lodge is through the Thai minority villages in Mai Chau, very pretty with well tended vegetable gardens and houses on stilts.  Very excited to see all the facilities offered here, a bar (yea) great room with non-flouroescent light bulbs and clean sheets.  Even a choice of tea.

Big treat.

 

 

 

Nam Coc to Cuc Phuong national park. 12th Jan.

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 17.32.19

Tam Cuc to Cuc Phuong national park. Harder day, but lovely park. Some birds. Yea.

 

P1110010

There be dragons.

P1110005

Exit of a 10C Pagoda. Used to be the capital of Vietnam.

P1110018

One fat, two thin.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Big tree, the sign said so.

Breakfast at Yen Nhi hotel, definitely not The Marriott.  Paul’s very accurate description of the coffee – ground up burnt varnished door steeped in warm water (tea, marginally better).   Topped off with cold fried egg, sweet bread and sour pineapple.

On the bikes at 8:00 am for short cycle to the 10C pagoda, capital of Vietnam for 40 years until moved to Hanoi cos the King saw a vision of a dragon rearing out of the Red River.  Strong drugs, but a big decision. Hanoi celebrated it’s millenium as the capital in 2014.  It’s spent it’s history defending itself mainly from the Chinese.  The Vietnamese like the French and Americans, now, but seem to deeply mistrust China. Odd that.

A 50 km ride to Cuc Phuong national park, a grey day and slightly drizzly, temp average 15c.  Brochure promises sight of “maybe one of the 95 mammals who inhabit the park”.  Sadly, the only ones we saw were in the primate centre for the langurs, gibbons and loris.  Some of them are saved from smugglers, re-homed and occasionally released into a national park where they may be protected from the insatiable desire of the Chinese for weird medicines or questionable dishes.

Staying in a guest house in the park. A bit functional, but a warm shower. Bliss.

Now for a beer. Again.

 

 

 

 

Hanoi to Tam Coc. Mon 11th Jan

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 16.59.13

Our route. Some by van!

P1100916

Catholicism sitting comfortably with Buddhism.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Beautiful Karst limestone scenery, and many cement factories.

Had been keen to get to Hanoi but keener to leave.  Not sorry to escape the aggressive horns and hectic pace.  This is winter and the temperature and humidity is pleasant.  Hard to imagine what it feels like in the middle of summer.  A short transfer in our bus to reach the outskirts of the city before riding our bikes along the Red River delta.  Very flat, bordered either side with fields of vegetables and fruits.  The road is very quiet but dusty with no tourist traffic, only the occasional truck or moped.  After 50 km, another transfer along the main highway to reach Tam Coc.  Followed narrow country lanes leading to the river and the entrance to the limestone caves on our boat ride.  Still sad to see so little wildlife, only spotted a few kingfishers in the park and one or two egrets.

Zan, our guide is great. Good English and looks like a cyclist should – ie not at all like Paul. He may well be dragging us up the hills in coming days. We are sure he can. Hung, the driver is also great. Stopped at motorway service for lunch. Loads of rice and tasty pork. Beer warm but welcome. Ice offered, er, no, ta.

Tomorrow is a bigger day. So to prepare: beer!

 

Bye Bye Hanoi. 9th + 10th Jan.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Hanoi coffee shop – Post it!

P1100910

‘Yummy’ lunch, dishwater and noodles. £2. Not much of a bargain, actually.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We way prefer our noodles.

Last chance for fresh coffee before we leave the city.  Thank you Ha for our guided tour across the huge Red River and the view of the “naked island” (some chaps like to pop over, take their clothes off and play football, apparently).

We have now met Zan, our guide to the Laos border.  News!  The other members in our group consist of….no-one else!  Group meal in Au Lac House. Yummy.

Then back to bed, for an early start. Both keen to get back on our bikes.

Transfer to Hanoi, crazy city. 7th +8th Jan.

P1100864

Hanoi, during a lull in the traffic.

P1100875

Crabs, still alive, just.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Toad bile juice. Yep, its true. Used in traditional medicine.

Leaving Ngoc- Nhem homestay was a mixed blessing. The excitement of our first city in Vietnam, but it’s bonkers Hanoi. We were both looking forward to a few days of a little bit of luxury, like lights and a choice of food.

We arrived late afternoon and Hanoi was in full swing. Just walking on the streets in the old quarter is a challenge, crossing the road needs serious planning. Once you are in tune with the city, it gets much easier: Just walk, the mopeds, generally, will avoid you, probably.

A day of wandering around a wet market, shops and life generally, all lived at 100mph.

Food was street meal, £2.50 and a beer for 50p. And it was good!

Lovely to meet Linda’s godson Simon and his wife Ha, who are both Hanoi residents now. A few local beers costing £1 and a G+T costs £1.50, in a smart bar. Great! Sadly the ice wasn’t so good as Linda spent the next 36 hrs very close to the (thank goodness) en suite.

Next, to wander around a bit more!

Around Da Bia Homestay, Wed 6th Jan

Another Health Warning, for 6th photo down. We are getting used to the local ways.

IMG_1516

New Muong home – everyone helps, unusually chaps lending a hand too.

 

Considered auspicious to have doggy dinner while building new home

Considered auspicious to have doggie dinner while building new home.

IMG_1564

For Rob Carter and Nick Adams. Great surface and only route to our homestay. Yea!

IMG_3549

Nhem’s granny

So lucky with the weather.  Woke to a sunny day which warmed up to 30c.  Sadly the wet towels don’t dry in our “stilt” bedroom in the overnight cool air.  Linda woken by some winged thing flapping around the room at 5:00 am, Paul barely slept, so in tune to differentiating between the local cockerels, not helped also by a couple of cockroaches dropping onto his head.

Banana pancake breakfast then a hosted boat trip on the enormous reservoir.  Only spotted one bird perched on the fishing nets.   There are rumours that some fishing is done with dynamite, or electrocution. Both are illegal, but we are a long way from anywhere.

Karst limestone backdrop is stunning. Some small villages only have access by boat. Remote.

First stop to a  house being built, then to Tay village, some of which was floating on the lake. All hugely welcoming. Apparently they only see 10 or 12 westerners in a year. We felt a bit like the pied piper at times with the children following our every step.

Cycle to Da Bia-Tien homestay, Tuesday 5th Jan

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 19.28.41

Only 30km but really hard work. Still took us 7 hours.

IMG_3526

Amazing views of high mountain paddy fields. Great roads, very quiet.

 

IMG_3525

Muong lady, red lips and black mouth (considered very sexy) from chewing betel nut

P1100859

Peaceful villages – only see women working. Men sit, smoke and talk.

Gosh, a good day on the bikes. Only 35km but ‘up and down’ doesn’t do it justice. From our homestay, 2 1/2 km, 270m up, so average over 10%. Not easy with a fully loaded bike and cold legs. Then 12% down, followed rapidly by 12% up, and repeat. It’s a hill, just get over it! Worth it for the views, which were in general superb. Good temp for cycling, maybe up to 28c, we can not imagine doing it in 37c and 95% humidity, i.e. ‘summer’.

Cycled through the Ba Vi national park, to Da Bia, Da Bac commune, which is home to some of the Muong Minority. Very friendly, subsistence farming. Again, not a word of English.

The homestay is comfortable, ish. Every house has chickens, ducks, pigs and a veggie patch. The chickens are bloody noisy, competing from 11.55pm until dawn to see who has the best “cock-a-doodle doo” Each one is different, and all wake us up. Especially Paul, who is now officially grumpy. Hope chicken is on the menu soon.

Food is interesting, but the veggie stuff is generally more to our liking than the “meat”. Memories of andouillette, which may account for the taste and smell.

Missing a comfy sofa and beds that are not made of concrete.

Cycle to Hoa Binh Homestay, Mon 4th Jan

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 19.25.42

Our route. 70 Kms. Lovely.

Our first day proper cycling.

P1100788

Memorial to the fallen VC soldiers in the American war. Still not sure who won.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Lovely Muong lady, 56, widow with a son. You learn so much about a person so quickly. Very happy to chat (via Thong!)

Harder day on the bikes, 71km and some proper hills meant a 7.30am start. Our guide Thong (pronounced “Tom”!) is very knowledgeable, great English and has a superb sense of humour.
Stopping for coffee (not great, even though Vietnam is a major producer of coffee) we are surrounded by the coffee shop owner and all her extended family. Tradition requires that shoes be removed on entering a house. Linda was an honoured guest and this rule was relaxed. Not sure if she just looked very hot, and they were worried about the state of her feet. Again, not a word of English.

We are getting a bit anxious about the time to come without a translator. Neither homestead we have stayed in so far looked in any way like a place that had rooms or any form of hospitality. No signs, no receptions etc, and certainly no wi-fi.

We will pick Thong’s brains for useful vocab and advice.

Some talk about the Vietnam war, although for obvious reasons they call it the American war. We passed a memorial for the war, and also the guarded mausoleum for Ho Chi Min. His  body was held in state for some years.

Today’s tradition is still for the eldest son to bury his parents (ideally waiting for their death first) and then allow the body to decompose. 3-5 years later the body is interred, bones cleaned and then re-homed into a smaller casket. Many parents live with their eldest son and his wife. Often 3 generations in one house. Children be warned. We think it may be a good idea.