South East Asia (mostly) by Bike Part 2 Luang Prabang to Hanoi

We left Luang Prabang by van. Unwisely, I offered to sit in the back of the van and, as the journey continued, felt increasingly travel-sick. It was a good road to avoid cycling on, as road and landscape had been desecrated by China Power damming the river valley.

From mid-morning we were back on Bikes and I felt immediately better. When we stopped for lunch we ran into a number of, presumably privileged, Chinese travelling in powerful cars, enjoying their lunar New Year break, and (although we didn’t fully appreciate it at the time) potentially spreading Coronavirus. We rode on to Oudam Xai, which like other places in Laos, was closed for the Holidays.

Celebrating arrival at Oudam Xai, Hazel,Andy,Bob, Mr Yord, Pinki & Anne all in the air. Daniel, Dee , the Laos rider & Quentin standing, yours truly unsure what to do (surrender?)

The next day was great.

There were children in local costume, presumably because it was New Year
roadside stalls of local produce
tethered buffalo
and terraced rice fields

… and there will still be, at least until the rivers are dammed by the Chinese.

As ever, I was cheered riding alongside a wild river

Breakfasts in Laos were limited. There was no provision for breakfast at our hotel in Oudam Xai, and eggs were cooked for us by our guide, Mr Yord. To supplement the Breakfasts, Pinki extracted, from her apparently Tardis like luggage, porridge, fruit and nuts.

On our rides, we stopped for lunch. I always had noodle soup, nutritious and digestible. Daniel, who kept to a form of vegetarian diet, would add raw eggs to his soup… (until the coronavirus warnings were passed on to us)

We were thanked by a local girl, troubled by a tooth abscess, for giving her painkillers
We met two Quebecois ladies touring SE Asia on Brompton folding Bikes They did say they had to be careful with potholes

On our last day in Laos, we rode through its little populated North East beside the Na Ou river.

NE Laos ; Suspension bridge
Anne and me on a temporary bamboo bridge across the river.
The riders on the temporary bridge, from left to right, Dee. Andy, Quentin, Pinki, Anne, Daniel & Mr Yord, who is hiding me.

If I have a criticism of the Tour, it was that the guiding was variable between the three jurisdictions. In Thailand there was an experienced English guide, Jon, with a Thai driver, Preecha. Preecha was thin and had long black hair and bangles. I imagined him as the Preacher, a dark character in a dark movie, but he couldn’t have been more helpful, always going into the kitchens to organise the food as the riders would like it. Jon was meant to ride on into Laos. However he had lost his passport, leaving guiding there to Mr Yord, who, at times, seemed out of his depth.

In particular the crossing from Laos to Vietnam seemed disorganised. After riding along the river, there was a long climb to the Laos border, after passing through which we were meant to eat lunch. Having ridden 72km, a lot of it uphill , no lunch was provided. The crossing was itself odd and wasn’t explained to us. There was some 5 km over the top of the forested upland between the Laos and Vietnamese between border posts, which the Laos and Vietnamese guides couldn’t enter. This meant there was no hand over and no lunch was provided on arrival in Vietnam either. In the circumstances, seven of us thought we had had enough for the day, only Bob and Quentin continuing to finish the day’s cycle ride.

Once in Vietnam, guiding improved, led by Mr Phong. who both organised Bike tours & owns a Bike shop. He was accompanied by Mrs Phong & their two children, enjoying the Tet school holidays, assisted by two drivers and a mechanic.

The riders with Mr and Mrs Phong and their two children, Boi and Kim,who couldn’t have been more helpful. Bringing us coffee during breaks, you were able to say, “Good Boy”.

Dien Bien Phu was the site of the defeat in 1954 by the Vietnamese Communist Army of French colonial forces. At night, we had been listening to Max Hastings’s “Vietnam , an Epic History of a Tragic War.” Being there, made more sense of the battle. Dien Bien Phu is a flat rice growing plain, remote from most of Vietnam. Around it are low hills, where there was fighting during the battle. Beyond them are mountains. The French assumed they could supply their base by air. The Communist regime didn’t count the casualties incurred in winning the battle; the end justified the means.

Dien Bien Phu; graves of Vietnamese dead ; most of them unnamed
Anne cycling around the rice fields leaving Dien Bien Phu; just the type of cycling I love.
Rice paddy below mountains and ominous skies
In the hill areas, women wearing tribal costume
It became higher, more mountainous and colder.

I cycled 104 km that day, climbing 3300 metres and recording the fastest climb or descent of the day, (I can’t remember which). Sounds impressive, but I exhausted myself. Riding out of Muong Ley, the next morning I managed only 5 kms before having to retire to the van to go back to sleep.

That night we stayed at Lai Chau, a city surrounded by tea plantations. Planned as a regional capital, it has proved too remote to enjoy the commercial growth experienced in much of Vietnam.

The next day was our last full riding day, we climbed up to nearly 2000 metres, apparently the highest road in SE Asia

Andy and Hazel on the climb

From the pass we descended in thick mist to Sa Pa, apparently established as a French hill station ( following the Raj example?)

From Sa Pa it was half a day’s drive to Hanoi , the Vietnamese capital with its crowds, hustle, bustle and smog. From the numbers wearing face masks, Coronavirus was clearly considered a greater threat here, than it had been in the remoter areas through which we had been cycling (or it was simply protection against the smog?).

Hanoi chic, speed, colour, motorbikes and facemasks
Flower seller, wearing traditional Vietnamese headgear, with her Bike
French colonial Art Nouveau cinema in central Hanoi

We had planned to stay two more days in Hanoi, take the train the length of Vietnam and from Saigon fly to Seam Reap in Cambodia, which would have allowed less the two days to visit Angkor Wat. However with the smog, crowds and threat of Coronavirus, we decided instead to change our plans and fly directly to Seam Reap.which meant we had five full days to tour Angkor Wat, a wise change of plan.

It gave us a real break after the cycle tour and meant we could see Ting Ting, whom we had met in Thailand, take her out to dinner & participate in her Yin Yoga class. We now knew what it was.

Unfortunately, our adventures weren’t over. Due to storm force winds throughout the UK, our flight from Istanbul to London Gatwick was cancelled. The best we could do was fly to Brussels and take an on flight to Heathrow. We arrived in Brussels airport (six of us) with no proof of our onward BA flight & fortunately the security guards had seen it before- Turkish Airlines not being known for their paperwork and we were allowed through. Luckily we were able to stay with Catherine, but it meant we were over a day late in getting home and that, instead of taking one tuk-tuk, four fights and a taxi to get home, we took one tuk-tuk, five flights, three trains (one severely delayed due to a signal failure), three taxis and a bus. but still we were home….

Abstract vision, flying into Istanbul before dawn.

One thought on “South East Asia (mostly) by Bike Part 2 Luang Prabang to Hanoi

  1. Dear Peter. Thank you for the superb blog. I have only looked at the bike section thus far. Definitely inspiring to read. A fascinating part of the world.

    Like

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