Thailand to Vietnam by Bike
by Hamish Morrin and Leah Bayer
"All men Dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they act their dreams worth open eyes to make them possible" TE Lawrence
Hello and welcome to my dream that I am in the throes of living out.
We are two cycle tourists who are traveling around Asia by bike, and enjoying every second of it. I am Hamish, a New Zealander who has quit my job as an Accountant and decided to travel by bike for a while; well actually for a year. So far I have biked from Singapore to Krabi in Thailand before catching a bus to Bangkok then off to Nepal for three months trekking. From Nepal it was back to Bangkok then on to the bike again from Chiang Mai with my cycling companion Leah, possibly the only person I know disturbed enough to purchase a bike in Bangkok with no forethought and embark on a 4000 (?) journey with a spare tube and a smile.
So the trip thus far........
Chiang Mai to Vientiane
Having said goodbye to the wonders of Thailand and her friendly people and the easy travel and off into Laos. Here email costs more than beer ( and the BEERLAO is good) , ugly pigs are the most-favored pet, the hills are ENORMOUS (and last between 10-25K at a stretch), the baguettes are amazing, the coffee is too strong to drink, cars hardly exist (and then only Pathfinders and other huge 4 wheel drives, driven by embezzling World Bank fund overseers), the waterbuffalo are pink and ugly as ever, where my bike is worth 6 times the average wage and is valued in the millions of Kip - what a country!
Anyway we biked from Chiang Mai around the top of Thailand, peeked over at Burma and longed to be able to explore the country then headed towards Chaing Rai, into the heart of the Golden Triangle, where the greatest danger is from been mugged by tourist touts and very expensive hotels rather than opium smugglers. ( See later). In reality you look over at Burma and Laos and wonder what they are like as you can see loads of unsploit native bush. This area is very easy to cycle in as the locals are friendly and can speak some English; also there is guest houses every 80 to 100km, and good Thai food.
Crossed in Laos at Chiang Khong and strapped the bikes to the top of the 2 day slow boat to Luang Prabang. Very relaxing and scenic watching villagers fish, and do their thing beside the river in pristine native bush. The peace was broken by low rider 8 seater speed boats roaring past. These are boats (modern day dugout canoes) with a cyclinder souped up motor on the back that race up and down the river at 50 - 70 km per hour. Helmets are compulsory for passengers, ( as is good life insurance if you ask me) and the things have been known to break part upon hitting a wake (yes, people pay money for this - but only once...).
Luang Prabang: Lapped up the bagettes and lazy French colonial atmosphere for a few days after we eventually found a bed. Visited the Royal Palace where the royal family resided until 1975 before they disappeared into the bush in Northern Laos when the communists came into power. Also noted the hyperinflation at all religious and tourist sites where prices are doubling every month or so. (Greed has arrived at all levels in Luang Prabang right down to small temples and monks, and the days of cheap lazy Laos are disappearing fast).
Out towards Vientiane. A short day turned ugly and we were 70 km out and had already climbed our first 14 km long hill, and done an equal downhill and were 1/2 way up the 25 km uphill, when we needed a bed, badly!!!. Sign language and bad Lao resulted in us being put up at a local villagers house and been feed rice. Talk about the human zoo, as I think we were the biggest thing out in the village (since sliced bread but that has not arrived yet soo...) as all kids and not little kids came to stare at us, and crowd around us we tried to relax, then sleep as little eyes looked through the cracks in the walls.
We were seen off by, literally, the entire village, and ignorantly made plans to stop a little earlier the next day - right. The first person Leah saw on the road was walking along innocently enough in a baseball cap, flip-flops and farmer pants, and toting a machine gun strapped nonchalantly over his shoulders. Nature called and I ducked off into the bushes innocent of the said person while fearless Leah continued on..
Her account of the incident as I was peeing in the bushes, innocent of whole eposide: (Hamish, ( as I peed in the bushes) was figuring most likely that a) he was less likely to shoot a girl and b) should he, there was a bend in the road and a damn long downhill aiding said gentlemans self-preservation efforts) - at any rate, I biked up to him, squeaked "Saibadi!" and smiled like my teeth were fighting for emancipation from the gumline - and he smiled back and waved. I signaled to him that he had a big gun (feeling needlessly emboldened - but it was also early), we both chuckled, and I rode on.
End of eposide. We would encounter more such gun touting individuals over the course of the next 2 days, and fortunately didn't hear until recently that a French aid worker was shot in the area in December (the road "used" to be troubled by bandits but is considered safe now...). The rest of the trip to Vientiane was uneventful by comparsion, thankfully, although we were very disappointed at the samll village known as Vang Vieng. Once a small village, now descended upon by tourists, the place has the feel of a construction site as trucks rumble through town loaded with concrete for the carbon copy boring guesthouses been constructed by the dozen. Thankfully we only spent one night here.
The people. They are friendly but in particular the kids are great. Every village we ride through people yell "Saibadi" at us from every doorway, and the littler ones generally shriek "Falang!Falang!" as well (translation "pale fool on wheeled contraption who DEFINITELY isn't from this side of the world"). Makes for a interesting chorus to keep us on our toes during the day.
Vientiane to Vietnam
From Vientiane hit the road south, towards Savannakhet. Day one. Crusing out beside the Mekong about 100km out of Vientiane with another 50km until the next hotel, our legs were tiring and we knew that this was the last half arse decent small town. No hotel so off to the biggest looking small street vendor, and with bad Lao and bad hand signals and smiles we are told to bike the next 50km to the next town. Next place same-same. Then we were pointed to the smallest street vendor and the big Pepsi sign, ( Coke does not exist here). Over we go and start off in the pigeon Lao and hand signs motion for a bed. Then to our surprise in perfect english we are offered a bed. Once we had gathered our mounths off the dirt we followed the offer of the bed around and she even had a room. We had hit a the jackpot.
Our perfect english speaker, about the only person in the whole of Laos who spoke great english by my reconning, was a doctor who worked for a local NGO. So after a clean up and shower we were enjoying a beer, (well I was and Leah was enjoying a Pepsi being the healthy thing that she is), when were invivited out for dinner to a local house. Unsure what this all meant we followed our host, the english speaking doctor, and several Laos all dressed in their Sunday best, or what ever the religious day is in Laos, out to a hilux pickup truck and down the village. Rocked up at a house, and were fed. It just so happened that we had chosen the perfect night of the year to stay, as it was the final day of the village festival and it is traditional to feed all who turn up at the house. This is more a reason for all the surrounding villagers to come party and be merry, all the same it was great fun as the locals tried to get the big white man drunk. Consequently the next day we biked slower. It was a great night, and definitly one of those random experiences that you get biking.
From there we went down the Mekong to Savannakhet. A very run down French Colonial town and very relaxing to hang out and look around for a rest day before returning to the bikes and towards Vietnam.
This was also good fun, except for the 200 km of head winds we struggled into and the bad road. However I have to admit that the road by bus would have been a lot worse than on bikes, with the bus continually bouncing over potholes and onto and off tarseal. We bikers just get to weaved our way down the road from tarseal to tarseal, like a salom course, only our gates were Vietnamise trucks honking their horns and the omnipresent potholes.
This section consisted of small towns and hotels that had no signs but we knew they existed via other bikers. One, if you could call it a hotel is worth a mention. A big old building, two stories, windows missing, cows grazing at the front door, communisim stamped all over it. This was the hotel. Run down is giving it credit. The wind whistled though the room, a cold wind at that, and the power outlets did not go. We did not think to much of the beds, even after Leah spent the best part of an hour cleaning them and the room, trying to rid it of numerous small and not so small creatures! We were out early the next day! The $1US was overpriced, but it was still a bed. I guess the best part of this ride was once again the locals. You go into the noodle shop or any shop and they are all smiles and friendly. Amazed that a tourist is in their small town and shop, and also avoiding the 12 hr, 200km bus trip from hell.
Out of Laos, sleepy quiet, no car horns, no cars for that matter, and sticky rice Laos. Into noisey Vietnam, with its one road and trucks with specially installed ultra loud horns directed at the left ear. You bike on the right side of the road, so that one ear is deaf by the end of the day while the other is being slowly deafened by touts in the tourist cities. The place also has a scattering of new shiny Communist momuments and then there are also the momuments to the soldiers who died in the "Amercian War" as they call it here, all shiny and well kept, while at the same time older Cultural Heritage sites go to ruins, unless money can be made. Then it is $5US to get in. At the same time Vietnam so far has been friendly to us, particularly the people in the smaller towns you have to stop in on the bikes. I guess traveling by bikes you do not need to deal with buses etc, so much stress of the country goes, and our biggest stress is normally what will we eat next!!.
We entered Vietnam at Lao Bao then cruised the glassy flat downhill all the way out to the coast at Dong Ha. We were to learnt that this was the best road in the whole of Vietnam, due to Highway 1 having 700km of road works, and that was just the part we were on.
The Highway 1 is not nice. Busy and nosiey but better than Highway 1 in the North Island of New Zealand any day. Loads and loads of other cyclists who insist on racing us, especically Leah, whenever we pass them. There is something in a Vietnamese male that cannot allow a western female to pass them. They tire very quickly. Oh for the wonder of gears!!
Did a day trip up the the Vinh Moc tunnels from Dong Ha. These were used by the Vietnamese in the war to avoid the Amercian bombers. They were dug by hand and are 12m to 25m deep underground and are several km long. Quite a feat, and made all the more realistic by the the landscape we biked though on the way there. Craters and holes where nothing will grow even after 25 years, with graves scattering the countryside. A vivid reminder of the immediate and lasting effects of war. Chilling.
>From Dong Ha biked south to Hue and spent a couple of days enjoying the area before heading down towards Hoi An. This is a very relaxing spot and we spent a few days here. Well worth every lazy second spent not doing much. >From Hoi An we decided that the backtrack to Hue was not pleasant and then biking a further 700km of road works all the way to Hanoi was not an option. Instead we opted for an equally unpleasant bus trip for 18 hours to Hanoi. Not a good trip taking 6 1/2 hours longer than planned. This was aided by worrying what "Bus Boy", a young stroppy Vietnamese boy, was going to throw at our exposed derailers next. The only people stropper than "Bus Boy" on the bus were the two cyclists who had paid double the normal rate due to our, "Having Bikes". I guess the authorties eventually have their way with you!!!
So that has been the trip from Chaing Mai to Hanoi. 1800km of biking over 7 weeks. Now in Hanoi waiting for Vietnamese visa extensions having managed to get 90 day China visas. Enjoying bakeries and banana pancakes but the noise and motorbikes are driving us crazy!!. We have never seen so many motorbikes. Even the little things like going for a walk becomes hard work as you dodge motorbikes flying, yes quite literally flying, down the road. If they went any faster they would be airborne, but then they would not be able to sit on their horn at all times. It is hard work!!!!!!! Not the kind of place I would recommend as a holiday destination, due to noise and eye stress. We have not been brave enough yet to get the bikes out.
The general plans over the next few months:
Head out of Hanoi towards the Laos border before heading north towards China on a road seldom used by tourist that is meant to be spectular, but hilly, with loads of genuine hill tribes. Then into China in early to mid April.
China, a large country. Very rough plans is to remain there until mid July. Looking at the south around the Laos and Burma borders with its ethnic minorties, and amazing sceney before heading north to Dali and Lijiang to enjoy banana pancakes and mountain ranges with fellow travellers. From there across to the Yangzi river before it gets dammed, then north again to see the Terracota Army and then eventually up to the Great Wall. If it all goes to plan I will be home in New Zealand in July, and Leah will be returning to the states to do her MBA.
So that is has been our adventure so far.
Ciao from Vietnam
Hamish and Leah
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