Day 50:Thursday 23rd February.  Phat Diem to a coastal campsite 50km south of Thanh Hoa: 98km.  Flat. 

Today was a day with many parts, all of them good except for cycling along the Vietmanese equivalent of the hard shoulder of the M1 – but more of that later.

We woke in our very nice hotel room – with a kettle – and sipped tea in bed.  We had both slept pretty solidly (the effect of 100km cycling the previous day) and did not feel like rushing.  There is an imperative to leave as early as possible when it is hot, but the weather here is cloudy and it is overcast all day, so the afternoons are fine.  All that meant we struggled to get out of bed, get our breakfast (last of the muesli bought in Nong Khiaw, Laos) and get on the bikes.  Being a posh(ish) hotel, they did not “get” cycling.  As Bernie checked out the woman at the desk asked where she was going today and, on being told we were heading for somewhere south of Thanh Hoe, offered to call for a taxi for her!  The idea that we might voluntarily wish to cycle that distance was utterly alien to her (and to lots of people we suspect – perhaps even a few readers of this blog).  Anyway the offer was politely declined and we got on our way on our trikes.

The road out of the cathedral town was flat and busy with local traffic, but not too bad.  We picked up the pace with a bit of a following wind and ambled through a series of towns and villages on the road between Phat Diem and Thanh Hoa.  The route took us off the main road, and past a series of recently constructed houses.  The dates are often prominently stated on the external brickwork and so we could see that many were built in the last decade and others were under construction.  This area appears to be a mixed agricultural area with smaller scale commercial factories, and it is clear that the economy is doing well – at least for some.  

We have developed some very informal (amd totally unevidenced) indicators of health and wellness (financial and otherwise) in an area.  The first is whether there are lots of people riding motorbikes without helmets.  More helmets indicates looking after oneself better, better education and greater prosperity (because, for those who know and understand, it is an insane choice to ride at 60mph without one). In this area, there was a low level of helmetless on bikes.  Perhaps – we feel – where people have a choice, wearing a helmet indicates a degree of solidity consistent with a sound economy.

The second indicator is the number of babies being looked after by older children, which indicates that parents need to work gets a higher priority than nurturing the next generation.  Very common in Laos and nearly unseen here.  

The third indicator is the state of the major roads.  Better roads in an area indicates a better economy – or a local authority with the money to fix potholes and put down decent surfaces.  That is a slightly dodgy indicator because, if applied in the UK, Shropshire would be an area of great poverty (and not just relative and often rural poverty in pockets – which of course it is).  Here the state of the roads does seem to be an indicator of the wealth of an area where all the major roads are in good condition.

Proceeding on good roads took us to NGa Thanh after about 35km and it was time for a bakery and coffee.  The town delivered with a wonderful bakery where we got doughnuts, small pizzas for lunch and baggettes.  Coffee was disappointing, but that is down to how they make coffee here and the fact that it is almost all drunk cold with ice cubes.  The doughnuts were the best part of that stop!

After another 15km we reached the QL1, the dual carriageway which runs from Hanoi city to Ho Chi Minh city – Vietnam’s M1 and M6 rolled in together.  Bikes are not barred from most of the route (only selected parts) and so we joined the hard shoulder to cross the massive Nam Ma River – just before it flows into the South China Sea.  It was strange being back on the fringes of Thanh Hoa because (as avid readers will recall) this is where the bus from Laos ended up and where we spent a night before getting another bus to Hanoi – just a few short weeks ago.  Getting back to Thanh Hoa – but this time on our trikes – felt like a small achievement.  We headed for “Big C”, the only Vietnamese hypermarket.  We had a shopping list of specific items (oats for breakfast, small scissors, instant coffee ..) all of which we had failed to find so far in Vietnam.  We found them all in 20 minutes, paid up and were back on our trikes.  I take back all my complaints about Walmart and LeClerc in France – there are times when having everything under one roof is great.

Typical street scene

We cycled another 15km or so and then it was 12.30 and so time for a lunch break.  Trouble was that for km after km there was nowhere to sit which would not get instantly surrounded by inquisitive (and deeply irritating) school children constantly asking “What is your name” – they know the question but not how to deal with the answer so just the question again!  Eventually we found a side road with a wall we could sit on and no children in sight.  The pizzas from the bakery were devine but the absence of school children lasted about 30 seconds.  They just seem to appear from nowhere – but this lot were strangely reticent and just looked – more accurately stared with open mouths – and then went round teh corner, only to reappear a few seconds later.  But we had the cynicism taken out of us when one young chap appeared with two bottles of cold mint tea with lemon – thrust them into our hands and ran off.  He later reappeared and offered us a place out of the sun in his restaurant, but we were just packing up then.  He got a selfie with us – lots of smiles as the iced tea was really refreshing and we will look out for it in future.

Fishing boats – moored during the day and they fish at night

Soon after that we hit the QL1 for about 20km.  The noise perhaps got to us most – constant lorries all of whom feel it necesary to sound very loud horns to let us know they were overtaking us – when the lorries were almost invariably in the outside lane and we were on the hard shoulder.  There was, of course, the constant flow of motorbikes coming the wrong way along the hard shoulder towards us.  Convention seems to be that the bike going the right way moves to the right into the carriageway to create space – but not when there is a massive truck coming up behind us in that lane!  The only near accident was when a woman with a child on the back of her motorbike joined the QL1 from a side road without looking.  Accident narrowly avoided, words exchanged but she seemed genuinely surprised that anyone else could possibly be on the road = so why look (or at least that was my interpretation of her words)!

We left the QL1 just south of the Song Yen river bridge and crossed into a different world.  There was a network of tiny streets (bikes but no cars), villages and coastal frontages so close to the motorway but totally untouched by it.  The river flows into the sea and creates an estuary which is a natural harbour for fishing boats, and the inland section is timeless.  We passed paddy fields with rice more mature than further north and a woman leading a bullock whilst her husband operated the wooden plough behind it.  It was idyllic, especially after the hard shoulder of the QL1.

After 15km we rolled up to a seaside “campsite” – as marked on googlemaps.  It was a basic area with some limited facilites.  At first the people we spoke to, who spoke some English, suggested charging us 200,000Dong to camp for the night – about £15.  Bernie just laughed and said that was ridiculously expensive and to our astonishment they agreed, and said we could camp for nothing!  So I am writing this with a beer – purchased in lieu of a camping fee. 

The beach is undeveloped and stretches for miles in each direction.  It is totally unspoilt but does not appear in any guidebook.  It is supposed to be the best beach in the region – and we could see why.  It gets very busy with Vietnamese in the summer but this is mid-week in winter and so visitors are thin on the ground.  It suits us well and is a great place to end a fascinating day of many contrasts.

We got back into the swing of camping again. We lugg around all our camping equipment, mainly as an insurance in case we end up not getting somewhere with a guesthouse or hotel. So we have not used it much but on every trip our camping days are often some of our best days. Strolling along the vast empty beach with a cuppa brewed on our (new) stove was wonderful.  Cooking up our simple meal looking out over the waves produced a meal that seemed more delicious than its simple ingredients alone. Soon we will be cuddled into sleeping bags lulled to sleep by the sea. Every day different with its own character. We will see what tomorrow brings.

The homeward journey

Day 49. Wednesday 22nd February.  Dem Dien to Phat Diem. 100km.  Flat. 

Today was a complete contrast to yesterday.  Apart from cycling off Cat Ba island, all of yesterday was through urban areas.  Today was all rural or small towns and villages. 

We were heading South West across the Red River delta but this time we clocked that there were some ferry crossings across some of the large rivers.  This meant we did not have to have a route dictated by bridges and main roads.  The ferries were small boats for local traffic, with fewer lorries or buses.  The brilliant Kamoot app plotted us a route between the ferries (but couldn’t cope with the ferry crossings themselves so David divided the route up.)

From the off we were cycling on tiny roads. The area is a mass of rivers and canals so most of the day we were cycling by water. Venice has nothing on this web of waterways (apart from the fantastic buildings and a bit more of a chequered history – and more money of course). Sometimes we were on tiny tracks weaving through paddy fields, sometimes passing through small towns and villages.  Judging by the reactions of those we passed, foreigners were not often seen in these parts and perhaps never on trikes.

The one disadvantage of being so rural was the lack of coffee shops! We have found it impossible to find instant coffee, only the 3 in 1 mixes, so although we had a kettle in our room we had to stick to tea.  After an hour and a half I was gasping for a cup of coffee and miraculously as we passed through a slightly larger town, David spotted a coffee shop.  Truth be told, the coffee was not very nice but it gave us the caffeine boost we craved!

In one village we created a bit of a stir when we stopped to buy tomatoes and some fresh mint from a tiny shop.  Soon people were gathered round admiring the trikes, smiling and laughing.  David invited a young man to sit on the trike for a photo, and his smile was as wide as the street.  We like to think we spread a bit of joy as we go along.

We reached the first ferry and were relieved that it did exist. The ferry was loading with a couple of cars and a small lorry as we arrived, and we bumped straight on up the ramp. A few moments later we were bumping off. Cost – less than 50p for both of us.

The ferry was powered by a boat straight out of the war in the 19960s and 1970s – probably ex US army issue.

We came across few coffee shops and very few open restaurants but today we were prepared on the food front.  I can confirm that cheese triangles (the nearest we found to real cheese) with tomatoes and fresh mint in a baguette are delicious. We had these for second breakfast alongside one canal and also for lunch,along with a lovely orange.  The oranges here are very tasty – easy to peel and full of flavour.  Not the same as at home.

Impromptu lunch seats

As we set off after lunch streams of teenagers appeared on bikes and motorbikes (some electric, some petrol) making their way to afternoon school.  Teenagers the world over see the world differently to everyone else.  They can, on occasion, be delightful but they have the capacity to be a touch irritating and this remains the same in Vietnam. Groups of motorbikes hung on our shoulder while teenagers giggled and laughed and cut in front and behind us calling ‘hello’ and ‘what is your name’. We tried to remain smiley but eventually, after one group of girls almost ploughed into me, I jammed on the brakes and waved them away.  In fairness, they did all then move on! 

The road wove between large waterways and, on one stretch, we saw rusted ship after rusted ship.  This was a ship cemetery – or a breakers yard to be more exact.  There must be access to the sea and this is where ships end up after their final voyage.  The sound of hulls being broken up filled the air – this is difficult and dangerous work, with a high possibly of releasing pollutants and so it only happens in the developing world.

Ships ready for breaking and a church in the background

Legs were beginning to tire as the afternoon wore on but we were also blessed that there was a fair wind behind us much of the time. We crossed one river on an enormous bridge that seemed to go straight up then straight down (fun going down the other side) and soon after that we came to our second river ferry.  Again we arrived just as it was setting off and this time there was no charge (or maybe they just let us off because we weren’t a car or a motorbike). This one disgorged onto a road that was barely paved so was definitely just for local traffic!

It was then just 7.5km to Phat Diem. We had read in the guidebook about a large cathedral here. This whole area of coastal northern vietnam is something of a Christian enclave, as a result of the Portuguese who came here in the C17.  98% of the population here is said to be Christian, and to be regular attenders at church.   All day we had seen huge churches sprouting above the paddy fields. The cathedral at Phat Diem is meant to be the pinnacle of them all so we decided it should be worth seeing – we weren’t disappointed. It was an amazing building. To the front was a large stone bell tower in Vietnamese style, which in turn was in front of a lake – much more like a temple than a church.  Behind this the cathedral proper through huge wooden doors.  The nave had huge wooden pillars and an ornately carved wooden ceiling.  There was a glittering altarpiece at the far end of the nave, and the priests were just setting up for mass. Wooden doors opened up the length of the walls to allow cool air to circulate in the summer months. It was stunningly beautiful and unlike any cathedral we’ve ever seen. 

We then set out to find somewhere to stay.  Not being a tourist area there was not much choice but in a toss up between a grotty but reasonably priced hotel and an expensive hotel with nice rooms we opted for the latter. For dinner we found a ‘buffet’  – here you sat on the floor with a low table where there was a round heated plate on which to cook a variety of meats, topped off with a large bowl of salad. We probably ate more meat this evening than we have in total for the last month! Good to have topped up our protein quotient!

Day 48: Tuesday 21st  February:  Cat Ba to Dem Dien: 95km and 300m of climbing

So what happened today?  Well quite a lot really, starting with 20km going north on Cat Ba Island to get to the ferry across to the mainland.  It was a lovely cycle along the island coastal road, with lots of small hills (some quite steep) and sweeping descents on good roads where we picked up speed.  We arrived not knowing when the next ferry would arrive but there was one within about 15 minutes.

Children arriving for school – all on motorbikes

We met up with a multi-national group on an adventure holiday (kayaking, walking, cycling and generally having a good time).  There were Brits, Aussies and an American.  We worked hard to try not to give the impression that their highly organised and managed adventures were any less exciting than our totally disorganised and unpredictable adventures, but they were clearly slightly amazed, a little worried and a touch in awe that we could set off not having booked accommodation in advance, or that we just made up our own routes for cycling. Having done this for so many years we are perhaps immune to the way our trips seem to others.  They have a point of course, and it was made very gently, but since we have often been the only guest occupying a room in a hotel, having nowhere to stay seems low down on the list of our problems.  One of the party was an Australian OT who specialised in burns, and could not resist asking if she could give me some advice about my burns, and it was very good advice indeed.  She also said they were healing very, very well and that I must have a strong immune system.  I agreed saying that I was indeed immune to most human emotions.

The port was not the mainland but another island, which had a deep water port for massive container ships.  There are a series of container ports in the Haiphong area, hence all the lorries carrying containers we have seen in recent weeks.   There was also a series of yards where containers were stored, presumably ready for the next ship to Rotterdam, Harwich or wherever or empty and waiting to go to a factory to be filled with more stuff “Made in Vietnam”.  The lines of containers went on for mile after mile.  

There was a massive bridge from Dao Cat Hai (Hai Island) to the mainland, and also a cable car running all the way from the mainland to Cat Ba island.  This was not working today but it must be at least 100m high and we were told that it was a very popular attraction in the summer, with views across to Halong Bay.  The road then took us in a loop to the north of Haiphong city – which is the third largest city in Vietnam, with a population of over 2 million.  It was busy, dusty and had the usual jumble of motorbikes, cycles, cars and lorries as well as polluted air.  Having said that, the city had a pleasant feel to it and was not as frantic as Hanoi.

We stopped for coffee and the young woman who served us made a huge fuss – we were her only customers at that point.  Sadly, the coffee was not quite up to the welcome but was still drinkable.  We then posed for pictures outside on our trikes (no doubt for a Facebook page) and bid our farewells – as if we had stayed with her for weeks.

Urban roads

We then struck South – and will carry on going South until we give up and get a bus to the airport on 12 March.  Being a delta area, it was flat but our route was dictated by the presence of non-motorway bridges which we could use to get across the rivers.  

The road was busy and mostly urban, so one part felt like another.  At one point a young man on a motorbike followed us closely and rode beside us, filming us on his phone.  That is not too unusual but he kept going for a long time and caused traffic chaos.  Trucks overtook him (and us) and were forced onto the other side of the road causing motorbikes coming the other way to cling to the side of the road.  We were very worried that a combination of our presence and his response would lead to an accident but eventually he waved and rode off.  We breathed a sigh of relief and pulled in for a rest beside a strange looking building that could have been a church, a hotel or a setting for a gothic horror show.  It was boarded up so you can make up your own mind what it is – my vote is for the last option.

French C19 style but what was it built for?

But then the young man arrived again – he had gone to buy bottled drinking water for us.  We had plenty but accepted his gifts.  He spoke no English and we spoke no Vietnamese – so we exchanged smiles, he took selfies and off he went.  Just another small encounter in the day.

We had toyed with going further but stopped at the town of Dem Dien, found a hotel and arranged a room for less than £10 for the night.  Then out to a lovely supper of fried rice, beef and vegetables and back to the room to read (and write this blog).  It feels good to be back on the trikes.

Day 47. Monday 20th February.  Boat Trip Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay.

We woke to our first clear skies since being in Vietnam and the beautiful view over the harbour from our floor to ceiling hotel window. After breakfasting at the hotel we were picked up to take us to the ‘tourist harbour’ for our boat trip.  On the way the driver picked up a young British couple who had recently graduated and were teaching English in Haiphong for a couple of months.  Haiphong is one of the main cities just onto the mainland.  It was so sweet as they explained that they had only met 2 weeks ago when they were 2 out of 3 new “teachers” on this scheme, but were now (or so it seemed) taking tentative steps as a couple.

As we know, we are not always good with organised tours (due to adverse reactions to being shepherded about), but mostly today was fine because nothing could detract from the amazing landscape.  The boat held about 30 people and was comfortable with plenty of shade, although with the exception of one other grizzly Canadian (who only seemed to speak about the cost of things and his lack of money) we were 30 years older than anyone else.  We felt a bit as if we were gatecrashing the youngsters party boat, but no one seemed to mind.  Soon we were weaving past the enormous kaste rocks rearing vertically upwards out of the sea.  The boat took us past a ‘floating village’ – wooden structures built on to pontoons made from barrels – housed 500 families.  We were told that a daily boat delivers fresh water and picks up the children for school on the island.

After an hour or so we turned into a bay and we all transferred into kayaks.  Here we saw the youngsters who could paddle and those with no sense of direction.  There were a young German couple who just did not get it – really, really did not get it, and veered one way and then the other as they paddled along.  It was hard work for them but amusing for us as we just ambled along in a more or less straight line.

We paddled for about an hour under natural arches in the rocks, through tunnels and in and out of beautiful bays.  It wasn’t exactly getting away from it all, as there were several other tour boats following exactly the same itinerary, so there were hundreds of yellow kayaks in the bay.  But there was no other way of seeing this unique landscape. 

Back on the boat we compared notes on our kayaking skills.  A young Israeli couple, who were on honeymoon, did not seem enamored with the experience.  The woman, who to be fair did not look like a natural athlete, said it was all too much hard work for a “lady on honeymoon”.  That comment left everything to the imagination (and of course we did not inquire further).

I think this was the setting for part of a James Bond film – if anyone knows which one, please let us know via a comment!

The boat then chugged off to moor in a sandy bay where a delicious lunch was served on board and we chatted to the British couple we had met in the taxi and to the Israeli couple. Then it was swim time – we duly jumped off the boat straight into the water without knowing how cold it was –  David from the top of the boat and me from the lowest possible part!  As we landed in the briney, we discovered that the water was pretty cold so we didn’t swim for long.

We then started to wend our way back and had a bizarre stop at a ‘fish farm’ – a floating shed with pens of different fish who jumped about when fed. Again we coincided with about 4 other tour boats so it was all a bit chaotic and we never gathered the point of it…..but they weren’t trying to sell us anything so presumably they thought it was of genuine tourist interest. 

Late afternoon sun

The last section back was lovely in the late afternoon sun and we were even provided with tea and biscuits.  A great day to see a really unique place.

The sun setting – from our hotel room

We were tired by the time we got back but our thoughts have turned to getting back on the bikes to continue our journey.   David fiddled with his gears, got the hooters working again (our first line defence against dogs) and I did washing, filtered water for our water bottles and some sorting.  Between us we think we are ready for the next stage but will only know when we get on the bikes tomorrow.

Day 46:  19th February: Tuan Chau Island, Ha Long Bay to Cat Ba, Cat Ba island: 23km.

We woke, packed up quickly, and made our way the few hundred metres to the ferry terminal to take the public ferry to Cat Ba island- the cheapskates way of getting a boat through this magical area.  The ferry left at 8.30am and hence more or less on time – this was not Laos.  It was a tiny RoRo car ferry which was similar to the ferries that cross between Scottish islands.  There were some other cyclists (locals I think but no common language so we could not do more than thumbs up), lots of motor bikes (of course, a few cars and enough room for a bus in the middle.  The route took us between the uninhabited karst islands – lumps of rock emerging from the sea with vegetation clinging to the sides and on top.

We met two free spirit women who were originally from Liverpool – a social worker and a yoga teacher – who were travelling together in Vietnam and Cambodia to celebrate their 60th birthdays.  Husbands did not fancy the rucksack life so, good to them, they were off for adventures on their own, and having a great time.  There were also a group of well dressed Chinese young women – posing for group photos and selfies and behaving just as we would expect.  We must seem so scruffy to them!

The boat slipped through channels between the amazing Karst structures, giving us all a great views in the emerging morning light.  It was overcast but not raining, as we watched numerous other with unidentified cargos boats negotiating passages through the narrow channels.  It had rained overnight but we have still not got our raingear out of the panniers.  We might get through this whole trip without using it – what a waste of effort that would have been to carry it!

We arrived at the northern port of Cat Ba island after an hour and cycled off the ferry.  Navigation from here was not a challenge as there was only one road, but in reasonable condition.  The karst structures that dominated the seascape equally dominated the landscape, coming up from the valleys. This was all a national park and the vegetation was thick and undisturbed, starting at the edge of the road and going up at precipitous angles to the top of the mountains.  We had 22 km to cycle and enjoyed the ride.

Half way along we stopped to visit some caves.  These were created when the sea level was higher and tidal flows pushed vast quantities of water into and out of the stone structures on a daily basis, finding small gaps and then expanding them.   A 300m path had been created through the cave structure, with the ceiling being so low at some points that Bernie had to duck.  I was not quite on my hands and knees but almost so. We saw the usual cave features – stalactites and stalagmites – and some evidence that bats were present in the caves, but no bats.

The final 10km into the town involved a few hills and it was starting to get warm, so that produced a veneer of sweat as we struggled up the steep slopes.  Then we swept down into the inhabited areas, starting with a place called “Hospital Cave” which we did not visit but understand that caves were used to develop a complete subterranean hospital service during the war.  

The Cat Ba town sits at the southern end of the island, with a westerly facing bay.  It is famed for its sunsets but not on overcast days like today.  Like Tuan Chau Island, it has had huge amounts of investment in recent years to develop a tourist infrastructure. It has not been done in too unsympathetic a way, albeit large hotels are never that beautiful.  It could have been Cornwall, except that the temperature was high enough in the winter not to need a jumper.

We checked into our hotel and decided that a combination of the need for another day’s recuperation and the beautiful surroundings meant that we were not looking to rush away from here.  That means we could book a full day’s boat tour for tomorrow and not need to rush to experience the wider bay area today.

Later in the afternoon we walked along the bay, across a headland and saw the town’s beaches – imaginatively called Cat Co 1, Cat Co 2 and (you will be knocked over to learn) Cat Co 3.  There was a delightful cliff walk between Cat Co 1 and Cat Co 2, but again this was not Cornwall.  The path was fully paved with steps where needed all along the 2 mile stretch.  It had lovely views across the bay and was a very civilised stroll.  There was a glimpse of the sun but no sunset – maybe tomorrow.

We met up with our scousers for a drink in the evening (by chance – this is a small place) and retired to the room by about 8.30.  Although there are places which accommodate the need for Western tourists to party all night, the Vietnamese eat early and appear to retire early, and to start the following day early.  That suits us fine as it gives time to read, recover and prepare for the next day.

Day 45.  18th February.  Hai Duong to Tuan Chau Island, Ha Long Bay. 95km.

We didn’t seem to have too many ill effects after cycling yesterday – 11 hours in bed may have helped! We set off through Hai Duong and found a prettier part of town as we made our way towards the bridge over the river.  We successfully found an ATM but were less successful in finding a large supermarket that might sell instant coffee (as opposed to the mixed packets of coffee, creamer and sugar that are ubiquitous here but to our taste disgusting).

At the bridge we had to filter on to the AH14 highway – a busy motorway-type road but with a wide shoulder and good road surface.  In fact we were on this for the next 20km. We were crossing the Red River delta heading eastwards so our route was defined by bridges over numerous rivers. We sped along the motorway, which wasn’t too busy, and ate up the Kms at a rate of about 20km an hour – fast for us and definitely much faster than when we started last month in Bangkok.

At last we turned off the motorway but we were still in industrial heartland, passing numerous belching factories along the river tributaries. The air quality was pretty unpleasant.  This is just as much ‘real’ Vietnam as the quaint alleyways of yesterday – every country has its industrial areas. When we buy something in the UK which is marked “Made in Vietnam”, these are the type of factories that are producing the goods.

Made in Vietnam

Towards the end of the morning we crossed the last river then turned South East along the side of some hills. It was still a main road but more of an ‘A’ road size, passing through towns.  In fact virtually the whole day was continuously inhabited as one town merged into the next.

After 60km we  reached Uong Bi where we sought out the Vietnam-Sweden friendship community hospital. There we found a small Emergency Department to ask if they could take out the sutures on my forehead as the 7 days were up.  We walked straight in (no problem with 4 hour waiting targets here) and it took David some explaining using google translate (and despite looking at his healing burns, we convinced them that no, he didn’t need a full check up). They wanted my passport, date of birth and numerous details about our trip including a permanent place of residence in Vietnam.  However, once they realised was that all we wanted was suture removal, I was whisked into a clinical room and they quickly removed the sutures in a sterile environment.  

There was no question of a formal “bill”.  We were told the cost was 500,00 VND (about £17.50).  The nurse insisted we pay him before leaving the room and he tucked the notes into his pocket before ushering us out of the department forthwith!  I suspect our visit remained unregistered and I hope the money was put towards their christmas party fund (or equivalent)! We really didn’t mind.  I was just very happy that it looked as if the nurses in Laos had done a good job with the suturing.

I have made an interesting observation which I think is a new symptom post-concussion.  I am thinking of writing it up as a case study for the Lancet with a cohort of one.  This is the symptom of Pizzaphilia – the urge to want to eat Pizza (and nothing else will quite do).  Neither of us have had much appetite since the accident but Pizza seems to have hit the spot.  Therefore, after the hospital visit, we found a Pizza place and had good cheesy Pizza.  It seems a scandal when the food in Vietnam is so fabulous.  There must be something about wanting home comfort food in times of stress.  Hopefully now we are almost fully recovered we will ditch Pizza and move on to Pho.

We had 30km to cover after lunch.  The road was tedious and we were tired and finding it hard going.  However, our fitness kicked in and kept our legs turning even when the rest of the body and mind wanted to stop.  The last section towards Halong Bay city turned into a 6 lane highway but at last we turned onto the bridge to Tuan Chau island, where we hope to get a ferry across Halong Bay to Cat Ba island tomorrow. 

We chugged the last few Kms across the island to check on the ferry times then found ourselves a small hotel – basic but clean. There seems to have been an explosion of building here in the last few years, but at the moment hardly any tourists.  We are off season for this part of Vietnam (as it is largely cloudy and relatively cool) but read that it gets packed in the summer. 

When we went out later to find something to eat there were virtually no restaurants open.  There was one large posh hotel doing and expensive buffet but we felt neither dressed for the occasion or that hungry. We walked to the end of the road and were pausing to turn round when suddenly I felt an arm round my shoulder pulling me away.  Luckily I did not karate chop my assailant – he was just pulling me away from standing under a coconut tree full of coconuts.  This is apparently a very dangerous thing to do with more people being killed each year by being hit by falling coconuts than being killed sharks.  I was jolly glad from being saved from that eventuality having just had my sutures removed!

As we wandered back wondering what we could find to eat, we passed a small  place that had filled with (local) people since we first passed it. They had put on a different buffet – a tin tray and selection of 6 or so dishes with a large dollop of steamed rice.  Perfect – just what we wanted for a 10th of the price! We could end the day replete after all. 

Day 44:  17 February :  Hanoi to Hai Duong:  65km and naff all climbing

We decided to leave Hanoi on Friday 17 February as we both felt we wanted to be back cycling after a week off the bikes. Bernie woke feeling a little out of sorts, but still wanted to get going so we agreed to try a shorter day as we rode towards Halong Bay.  It was overcast and getting out of the city was a challenge – but then getting out of all major cities on a bike is a challenge!  At one point our Kamoot route took us along a narrow walkway next to an elevated railway track for about 3km.  This was just wide enough for 2 motorbikes and they streamed past us, not clipping our wheels but often not far away.  Eventually we got the other end – great relief.  However, we would never have found it without Kamoot and it got us out of the main city and across the Red River very quickly.

Small streets on the way out of Hanoi

We then followed the route through the “suburbs” but these were not rows of semi-detached houses.  We went past factories, motorways, universities and an area full of heavy goods vehicles.  After about 20km we stopped for coffee at “Bobby’s Coffee Shop” which was a modern (and packed)  coffee establishment in the heart of an industrial estate.  The coffee was excellent of course.  

And then we came across this lovely coffee shop in urban wasteland

The route then took us along back roads (and on one occasion a track that was not a road) past paddy fields, factories, little towns and rubbish heaps.  This area is a delta and every square metre is either built upon or farmed.  At one point we joined a road that seemed to have an endless stream of articulated lorries carrying containers, no doubt heading for a sea port.  We were pleased to get onto a smaller road and then stopped at a bakery to get stuff for lunch.

The only bit of the route with no tarmac – not a long section

We stopped at the edge of the village to eat our lunch and, of course, were joined by children. Western tourists seem pretty rare here – Western tourists on bikes are rarer and I suspect they had never seen trikes before.  They played around us, enjoying the novelty of us being there but not knowing how to communicate – and short of googletranslate there probably was no way of communicating.  But we were pleased to see them and they seemed pleased by the distraction we provided – and that is enough.

A final 15km and then into the town of Hai Duong.  Not in any guidebook but half a million people live here.  It is a functional town – not pretty but not ugly.  It feels as if virtually all of the town was built in the period since the war ended in 1975.  This is not an affluent place but there is also little evidence of poverty.  It is a Vietnamese Milton Keynes.

We found a hotel and went out for a vegetarian – cook it yourself on the table – dinner.  It was great and we are in bed by 7.30pm.  We are both pretty tired as we are asking our 60+ year old bodies to cycle long distances and keep healing.  There are times when our bodies are not quite up to our ambitions but they do their best and we respect them for that!  We shall have to see if we can do the 90km to Halong Bay tomorrow.

Days 42 and 43:  15th and 16th February: Hanoi

It was great to wake early but then snuggle back down and emerge again at a lazy pace. Eventually we stirred ourselves enough to take some washing to the laundry round the corner.  The apartment is in the heart of the Old Quarter so we strolled some of the streets until we came across a bakery for breakfast with good coffee and delicious fresh croissants which we could see baking on the premises. 

Back at the apartment I rested while David went to a bike shop to sort out some things. Then off for a longer stroll through the small streets of the Old Quarter.  It was pretty touristy in some parts but there were also a myriad of small businesses spilling on to the street.

We found a good pizza restaurant with the pizzas made and cooked in front of us and struck up conversation with a British couple next to us. Turned out we were politically like minded so we were soon putting the world to rights!

An uneventful day – but that was the point. Rest and recovery still the order of the day.

The next day we still didn’t feel in the mood for formal sightseeing but we still  had some shopping to do before leaving Hanoi so we did our own alternative bike tour of Hanoi. We left the lovely apartment on our trikes in the middle of the morning after Bernie had done some filming for Bien, extolling the virtues of the place.  I hope it means he can rent it out more although the criteria set by AirBnB for the filming appeared very strict and we are not sure that her contributions will be able to be used.

We needed camping stuff, notably a stove, to replace the stuff lost when the stove did its exploding trick. There was a Decathlon in the suburbs so we headed for it.  The route took us along a series of tiny roads, twisting our way through the back streets of Hanoi and showing us the under-belly of the city.  We passed numerous workshops all spilling into the street, tiny furniture stores, fresh meat on sale with no refrigeration (and lots of flies), laundries and shops selling things we could not identify.  Motorbikes were everywhere and there were virtually no cars.  There is a complete network of narrow backstreets that, in practice, cars cannot use and hence the motorbike is king.  

Eventually we joined a main road which took us to a modern shopping mall.  This was just like every other shopping mall across the world and we could have been in the Bull Ring in Birmingham (except the shoppers were perfectly dressed – apart from us of course).  Decathlon was hopeless as, in reality, it only sold clothes.  Bernie got a new swimsuit but the “camping” section had no stoves.  Vietnamese campers must go hungry.

So we consulted Mr Google and found a specialist shop supplying camping equipment who not only sold us a new stove and pots, but also had a pair of trousers that fitted Bernie- she is of course standard size here at 1m 50cm, and not treated as a midget by those who only seem to produce clothes for Amazonian goddesses.

Next we found somewhere selling pizza and filled up with one between us, and then went back to the apartment via the Ho Hoan Kiem lake, which is in a large park in the centre of the city.

That evening we were due to eat with Bien and his wife but they had gone to the hospital with their son, which was worrying and far more important.  So we ventured out and visited a “sky bar” where we had beer and wonderful spring rolls whilst looking out over the lights of the city.  Hanoi has a long history and we didn’t make the most of the visitor attractions but got a  feel of the hubbub or the old city.  Perhaps we will come back another time.

Days 38- 41 12th-15th February

Sitting down to write about the last few days, so much seems to have happened.  Looking back at the last entry seems an age away as so much has happened. I’m sitting in a friend, Colin Macfarlane’s, lovely apartment in Hanoi feeling very lucky that we have a great place to recuperate.

So to back track. The last blog was written before the evening of 11th. We went round the market in Sam Nuea in the late afternoon to stock up provisions for the next couple of days.  Fresh fruit and veg – avoiding the rats, mice, frogs and goodness know what other unmentionables that were on offer. We went out to eat for our final meal in Laos and bumped into some other tourists and we all joined together for a meal – a German couple we had met on the bus, an Israeli political scientist and a Belgium family with their 2 children.  However the evening felt uncomfortable and rather negative and after eating we made our excuses and left.

Returning to the room we started to pack up for the next day and David went to boil up the eggs as we usually do. We had an incident with the petrol stove that we think became faulty after bumping around on the bus. Bernie got a knock to the head that required some stitches at the local small hospital and we both had minor burns.  

The next day we were not sure that Bernie was 100% right and was a bit concussed so we sorted things out in Sam Neua and decided to take a few days off the trikes and move to Hanoi.  Our unease in staying Sam Neua was compounded by the fact that the whole situation at the hotel was extremely odd. There seemed to be a whole family of children there sleeping on a bed and sofas downstairs with no sign of any adults. The oldest child, maybe aged 16 (at most), was in charge and conveyed messages.  We were the only guests.  Goodness knows what was really going on.

Bernie did not feel up to cycling to the bus station (up a steep hill), so took a taxi to the bus station (with all the panniers) and David towed her trike the 2km and 70m climb up to the bus station.  The taxi driver thought this was highly amusing and chortled with laughter all the way.  One of the lovely things about Laos is how much the people laugh so although with half her brain she felt irritated that this was no laughing matter, the other half of her brain knew this was a cultural response and the taxi driver was very kind.

We arrived at 7.15, having been told to be there 7.30am and ready for an 8.30 bus.  David folded the bikes and brought the tickets. We met an American woman, Miran, who ran a business buying hand woven silk fabric and running weaving tours. 8.30am came and went but about an hour later the bus rolled in and the trikes were loaded onto the roof. It was a few stops later in the town before we were properly on our way an hour and a half late. The bus is not just for people but was clearly also for deliveries as we picked up various boxes and packages.

The bus made its way slowly to Vieng Xai – the place of the hideout caves of the Pathet Lao.  The was the centre of operations for the Lao fighters who took on and beat the might of the USA forces in the period up to 1975.  We stopped at a hotel and reversed round to the back for the next packages to pick up….. which included a live pig, all trussed up in a sack.  Even in our predicament we could not help laughing as the pig was winched up onto to the roof, squealing at top volume (sorry animal welfare enthusiasts, I know we should have not found it amusing and it must have been objectively awful for the pig).

We reached the border about 12.30, but this was such a small border crossing that it closes between noon and 1.30 for lunch. We were highly anxious about the border crossing because when we came to print out our visas we saw the David’s stated that he was female rather than male. Objectively the visa had been issued but he was objectively male!  We were terrified that a border official might highlight on this issue and object to his entry into the country – perhaps he should have worn a dress. It seemed to take an age for our passports to be stamped. At last the poker faced official gave the last stamps and handed over the passports and we were on our way.  The relief on David’s face as we sped into Vietnam will stay with Bernie for a long time.

The transformation into Vietnam was instantaneous. We realised we had become inured to the poverty of Laos but suddenly the road was good, the houses were proper houses, everything was vibrant and colourful, even the trees seemed greener. 

Suddenly the bus seemed much jollier. Our fellow passengers were chatty and laughing – only the American lady was a little irritated as, entirely understandably, we were running on “Lao time”, namely very late, and she wanted to get to Hanoi that night.  We had already decided that this would be too much for us and we would stop in Thanh Hoa.

Deliveries started to be dropped off when we came to the place where ‘Mrs Pig’ was being dropped off.  Mrs Pig was actually a very smartly dressed, slight woman with a young child. Just before her stop she leapt off the bus and picked up a wicker tube.  It soon became apparent that this was for the pig, which was not getting off at this stop. Amidst further squealing the bus guy tried to get the pig into the basket without success so Mrs Pig kicked off her flip flops, rolled up her sleeves, climbed onto the roof of the bus and worked with the bus boy to wrestle the pig into the basket….she’s clearly done this before. And this was all done without disturbing her lovely attire.  Oh that we had that skill!

The bus journey droned on and although it got very tedious, the good news was that Bernie was feeling somewhat better.  At last about 7pm, 12 hours after starting our journey in Sam Nuea, we arrived in Thanh Hoa. We checked into the nearest hotel opposite the bus station, got something to eat and collapsed in bed. 

The following day David slept in and was woken by Bernie at 8am – an almost unknown occurrence in our long marriage.  We then battled to get a new sim card for the phone so that it would work in Vietnam, and made our way to the northern bus station that served buses for Hanoi. That was about 8 km out of town and, when we arrived, it was very confusing as to how we worked out what was the right bus to Hanoi, whether it would take the trikes and how much it would cost.  Eventually we found a bus that claimed to be going to Hanoi and said they would take the trikes and us for the exorbitant fee of 1.2M dong – about £32.  We should have haggled but did not have the energy and so just agreed.  

Once on the bus, we realised it was a “sleeper” bus with sleeping seats.  These were pretty comfortable and made up for the fact the bus went mega slowly, looking out for passengers to pick up all the time and avoiding the toll roads.  It took about 4.5 hours to get to Hanoi and, once there, the bus drove around the outskirts rather than going into the centre (as Bernie had been promised).  No one else seemed to be getting off at Hanoi and we were “dumped” at an unscheduled stop on the outskirts with the trike and all our panniers on the side of what felt like a motorway.  We had 8km to cycle to the city centre and this was the nearest we were going to get to being dropped in central Hanoi.  

Needs must and so we loaded up the panniers and went out into the traffic.  At first it seemed complete chaos – but we began to learn it was organised chaos which, after a fashion, worked.  The cars and motor bikes streamed past us (on both sides) and traffic on the main road gave way to traffic coming in from the right.  Hence, those joining the main road never looked to see if there was a gap in the traffic – there never was – so they just drove onto the main road and expected the existing traffic to give way (which it did in its own manner).  

After 8km we reached Hang Bong Street and met Bien and his wife, Lan, and their two children.  who are our hosts.  They have a sick son at the moment and so were wonderful to host us as well.  Bien provided supper to us and we learned what a lovely chap he is.  The apartment is owned by an Australian friend, Colin, with who we worked in the Walk for Life charity (providing services to correct club foot babies in Bangladesh).  We spoke to Colin in India on the phone – and then finished supper.

To say we were relieved to be in Hanoi was an understatement.  Travelling is different from normal life at home, and there is far more opportunity for things to go wrong.  The stove incident was an unexpected event  and we were hugely conscious that the outcome was not too serious for us.  It interrupted rather than ended our trip and we feel we will  back on the trikes in a few days.  We also got through the border without incident when, with a stricter border guard, it could have been far more difficult.  

Our first impressions of Hanoi are that it is a city in South East Asia with rich and poor.  There are plenty of well dressed people and plenty of people scratching a living on the sidewalk.  All life happens here – good and bad – and there are some things for the tourist, but this is not New Delhi or even Bangkok.  It is a crazy, humming, functional metropolis where there are tourists and there are facilities for us, but tourism is at the margins, not in the centre of what defines the city.  And in many ways we feel far more comfortable being in a city like that.  

It will be a great place to recuperate for a few days, to regroup and start again.  We went to bed expecting to sleep and were not disappointed.

Interruption:  Trip adjourned

Hi all.  Bernie seems to be under the weather, so we have decided to get a bus to Hanoi over the next few days and get her back to full strength.  No one need to be worried but, as this is a cycling blog and we are doing no cycling, we’ll take a break from posting for a few days.  

More posts will follow when the bikes wheels start turning again.

Day 37: Saturday 11th February: Muang Hiam/Vieng Thong to Sam Nuea by bus.

So we have reached Sam Nuea, just 80km from the Vietnam border.  It is a town with a “soviet” feel to it with a monument to the victory in the last war (against the Amercians that ended in 1973).  It is the last major place in Laos and we soon we hope to cross into Vietnam to start our third country on this tour of South East Asian countries.  And then, after visiting Hanoi, start to work our way south towards Ho Chi Minh City.  After that it will be a flight home and back to Shropshire for the spring.  That is still a month away but the time has flown by and it is weird to be thinking about the last leg of this amazing journey.  But, to put it in perspective, we still have more than double the time people get for a 2 week holiday – so no complaints at all.

However, today is a chance to reflect on what we have seen and experienced over the last few weeks.  So this is a blog with some reflections on Laos.

The bus journey today took us along a road we would have loved to cycle but the gradients and the remoteness were beyond us.  The road followed a ridge with spectacular views on both sides.  It would be unfair to the views to say it was “more of the same” mountain views but it was both fantastic and not that different to the mountainous views we have enjoyed over the past week or so. We passed two heavily laden touring cyclists on mountain bikes going slowly near the top of one of the climbs.  They looked much younger than us and, although we both had a touch of envy (as it would have been a beautiful road to cycle), we felt that we made the right choice in bypassing yet another set of serious climbs on roads which were a toss up between tarmac and sand.

Getting the folded trike on to the bus

The road took us through a series of villages – with huge numbers of children on the side of the road.  Life in Laos happens out in the open.  It often seems the job of children under 10 to look after the babies – both boys and girls – as we saw young children with babies stapped to their backs.  There also appears to be under-employment on display, with lots of adults sitting around, especially at this time of year.  I suspect the countryside will spring into life in the wet season and everyone will be in the fields.  But at this point in the annual cycle, there seems less to do and there is lots of sitting around open fires, at all times of the day.

Travelling through the mountainous jungle areas here shows up a tension between the needs of the growing population and the needs of the fragile jungle environment.  Laos has about 7.5 million people, and the number is growing – by about 1.4% per year.  In crude terms, the population is growing because, for 1000 people each year, 23 children are born and only 6 people die.  

Although this is a poor country, its economy is said to be growing at about 7% a year and the number of people in poverty is slowly falling year by year.  The Lao government claims 100% of people have access to electricity which may be a slight exaggeration, but power pylons followed every road we cycled taking electricity from village to village.   However there is no system for waste disposal and the constant levels of discarded plastics are an obvious problem.

As we cycled we saw areas of the jungle being cut back to provide new farmland, probably to grow vegetables and fruit (mainly oranges and bananas).  It was depressing to see columns of smoke as new areas of jungle were cleared.  We wonder how much natural jungle will be left in future decades, but there are large national parks and their presence may be stopping localised deforestation in those areas.  The jungle we have cycled through is home to a wide variety of species of birds and animals, and is also part of the earth’s lungs to counter effect global warming.  But we suspect Laos gets only very limited benefits from the wider good that its forests deliver to the world.  That is something where there are different perspectives in international climate change conferences, but it really comes home to us here.

Laos people are some of the most helpful, friendliest and most welcoming we have come across anywhere in the world.  When they see our trikes, huge smiles spread across the faces of both children and adults.  They may well be an element of them laughing “at” us, because what we are doing must seem utterly bizarre to them.  I can imagine them thinking “Where is the engine?” or “Can’t they afford a motorbike?”  But equally we are made very welcome cycling through their country, and there is an appreciation of the physical effort involved in cycling – lots of thumbs up and “very goods” called out to us as we pass.

Finally, a canine observation.  Lao dogs are the most laid back and least territorial we have come across.  Some lie in the road on hot tarmac and will not move for anything, so the traffic has to steer round them.  Others amble around the villages as pets but none have been aggressive to us.

We will leave Laos with fond memories of a country with a tragic history of conflict, that is struggling to make progress and bring its people out of poverty but has enormous human, economic and environmental challenges ahead.

Day 36: 9th February: Chong Tai to Muang Hiam/Vieng Thong. 61km. 1450m climbing.

We set the alarm early as we knew this would be another big climbing day and set off into the foggy morning determined to pace ourselves. Unfortunately, in our final departure, we left David’s UK and EU flag behind.  We only realised after 6km but could not afford to add another 12km to what would already be a long day so cut our losses and left it. We will try and replace it somewhere.

It was 20km to the start of the ‘big climb’ along the river valley.  As with yesterday this was not flat but significantly undulating.  We did 400m climbing and only gained about 50m elevation – it was hard not to resent every 30 or 40m downhill which we knew we would have to climb again. 

However as we neared the end of the valley the scenery got more and more beautiful.  The usual early morning fog had burnt off to another cloudless day. As the river we were following turned up one valley we turned into a new valley between the large rocky cliffs that are characteristic of the ‘karst’ mountains of the region.  We had a 750m climb ahead of us and were relieved to get it started.

We have learnt much about the psychology of big mountain climbs over many years. Like so much sport, much of it is in the mindset.  Particularly heavily laden for touring, we switch to a new mode where we spend much of the time in (or very near) bottom gear, often only going at 4-5km an hour. Once you have accepted that you are going at snail’s pace, there is something very calming about plodding up a mountain. The mind becomes tuned to the body and seems to clear of everything else.  Hours can go by with hardly a thought, apart from thinking about the next significant point – 50m climbed or a 100m height gain. 

This was a particularly enjoyable climb.  The gradient by and large was not too great, the road surface (for Laos) was OK, The road was quiet with vehicles only about every 10 or 15 minutes (if that) and the landscape was beautiful with the narrow road winding up through tropical forest.  This gave good shade, which combined with the steadily increasing elevation, kept us cool. So it was quite serene with just bird song and insects chirruping to accompany us.

We reached the summit at about 1350m – the highest point of our trip so far.  No views as such as we were in thick forest but amazing vegetation. We then descended 500m, crossed a river then into the next climb – another 250m. Legs were definitely tiring but we gritted out teeth and plodded up to a view that opened out onto layer upon layer of hills and mountains.

Then a lovely 12km descent – the best road surface we had had for days so we could swoop down to the town (but still need an eagle eye out for pot holes). We had completed 1450m climbing, the third day of 3 mammoth days. We felt pretty bloody fit but decided that this was probably enough for us so decided to get a bus tomorrow to rest our tired limbs. 

Young women with children will be one of our strongest memories of Laos.

Day 36:  9th February: Vieng Kham to Chong Tai:  50km and 1280m climbing.

There are days when the mileage and climbing figures for a bike tour tell a large part of the story of the day and days when they obscure the real events to the point of being nearly irrelevant.  Today was one of the latter days when the stats tell only part of the story.  50km and we feel exhausted.

We woke early and were on the road by just after 7 because we knew we had a big climb to begin with and wanted to do it in the cool of the early morning.  When we first started in Bangkok, a climb of 800m would have freaked us out but now it is pretty standard – it’s a mind game this cycling lark and our minds are moving towards accepting nearly anything the road throws at us.

It was misty, cool and not too steep as we climbed out of the valley. We managed 250m climbing in our first hour and felt pretty good (and would pay for our recklessness later).  The sun emerged from the mist and the views were spectacular.  We plodded on upwards, passing through villages of hill tribe folk – some greeted us with familiar Lao greetings or even saying “hello” or (more often) “goodbye”, and others used languages that we did not understand at all.  

We reached the top of the climb about 10.30am, over 3 hours up and the time had flown by.  We felt that the day was going OK, but we knew our main challenge was ahead of us – the sections of the road ahead which had no tarmac.  Kamoot had advised us that there was a section of 10km without tarmac but Tino and Alice (who had cycled this in reverse) told that they were not counting but it felt more like 15km to them.  They were being too kind as the section of road that substantially omitted tarmac was nearer to 20km.  

Riding trikes on a track without tarmac is difficult to describe but is an acquired skill – like enjoying hot curries or understanding compassionate conservatism (we are still working on that one).  The surface ranges from hard sand (good), soft sand (bad) or soft sand and lots of rocks (bl***dy awful).  I was super-mindful that my derailleur was at risk in this type of terrain and so we were ultra cautious with the trikes and we crept down the descent little faster than going up.  It was slow, a bit tedious and scary.  There were uphill sections where we got off and pushed as this saved the gear systems, but the sweat fell off us as we pushed loaded trikes uphill.

Fortunately, the route was more down than up which means we award mega brownie points to Tino and Alice who cycled this the other way, and so climbed on soft sand.  We kept thinking that the non-paved section was coming to an end as we were seduced by a few hundred metres of tarmac, but then we went round a corner and hit long sections of sand and rocks again.  The level of concentration that was required to navigate through the uneven ground, avoiding falling off or tipping the trike and yet continuing some form of momentum was considerable.

Pushing uphill to protect the derailleur

Eventually, after 20km of this hateful road, we reached a village which largely marked the end of the section where there was no proper road.  I do not wish to speculate on why the local authority (assuming there are such bodies in Laos) responsible for this bit of road has so failed in its duties in preparing a road surface for everyone (including passing foreign touring cyclists but also cars and Chinese lorries)! The one advantage is that there were limited numbers of vehicles – the lorries teamed up in convoys and so we would be passed by 6 or 7 at once and then have an hour without them.  It was just as well there were few vehicles as each one threw up vast amounts of dust. By the time we got to the bottom the trikes, panniers and both of us were caked in dust – but we were sort of proud of the fact we got through with few breakages (apart from the welded mudguard holder which did not quite make it through – another “Heath-Robinson” repair was needed.

The village at the end of the non-tarmac section had no functioning lunch outlet – we could have got beer and loud music, but not food (or so it seemed).  So we pressed on and eventually cooked up noodles and eggs for ourselves.  Bernie commented that, with all the eggs she is eating, she might look like an egg but that seems unlikely as days like this are thinning and  transforming our bodies into something like 60 year old Love Island contestants – forgetting that that is a contradiction in terms (which brings us back to compassionate conservatism).  

We looked at the maps online and expected a 10km stretch along the valley whilst the road followed the river to the next town which might have had a guest house or 16km to one on googlemaps.  So we set off at about 3pm feeling that our tired limbs would soon be relaxing.

But – and there is always a “but” with this type of travelling – the map did not quite do the terrain justice.  Instead of following the river, the road undulated up and down with a series of 50m climbs and descents that sapped our energy and challenged tired limbs (we should have set off less quickly and saved ourselves for later in the day).  

There was no guest house in the village after 10km  – so just an extra 6km but the final kick was that this section involved an unexpected 180m climb.  So we struggled up watching the metres accumulate, thinking that we had a lot to do tomorrow and it was probably better to do this now than in the morning.  Finally we arrived at the guest house and collapsed – no wifi but £4 for the night so who can complain. The room is just about wide enough to fit in a double bed but everything is very clean and the shower hot so we could finally get rid of the dust and dirt. 

Overall a “memorable” day with fantastic views but maybe one we will not seek to repeat in a hurry.

Day 35.  8th February.  Nong Khiaw to Vieng Kham.  50km. 1150m climbing.

Luckily David slept solidly through the night without any further stomach issues and so although he wasn’t feeling 100%, we were both keen to set off. I was feeling slightly nauseated but otherwise ok and we both managed to eat breakfast so we set off.

We were immediately into more stunning scenery, which distracted us from our ailments. It’s difficult to keep describing mountains in the early morning mist in different ways to how they look at other times, but they seemed even more beautiful at this time. The mist soon burnt off as we entered a narrow valley, following a tumbling stream and then we were into our major climb of the day.  We do these climbs slowly but today we took it even slower as we knew we were only aiming for 50km and had this one 800m climb to do (although we had undulated over 200m climbing before even starting). 

The road was spectacular as we climbed through wonderful scenery. We passed through villages clinging to the ridges, with the usual waves and smiles.  We understand these villages are inhabited by different ethnic groups, but this was not obvious to us passing through. We navigated past piglets, cows, ducks, numerous children and a lot of pot holes.  

At one point we passed a line of young men walked along the street of a village banging drums and cymbals, with one holding an animist symbol. Animism is a belief that natural objects like trees, hills or rocks are inhabited by spiritual entities with supernatural powers.  Ancestor worship is also common in the highland tribes. A talaew is a bamboo star that is placed somewhere – often amongst growing crops, to ward off evil spirits.  We had seen them in the rice fields on the walk yesterday and have seen them along the road, but these seemed a lot more elaborate than just a star but presumably do the same task. We didn’t  know what this was about and although tempting to leap off the trike and take a photo, it was clearly a ceremony of some sort so did not seem appropriate (although they waived to us and gave us thumbs up from the procession). 

The road was mostly quiet although there were occasional large Chinese lorries.  We always tucked right into the side of the road when we heard them coming (and could see in our mirrors),  even slightly off the road if we could.  However we have no complaints as the drivers always gave us as wide a berth as possible. Bizarrely, later on near the summit, they were all parked up in a line on the road for no obvious reason (other than possibly all stopping for lunch).  This was not a long stop as they all passed us again, going down the other side. 

About two thirds of the way up we were assailed by a Scottish voice passing on a motorcycle and so of course we stopped. George and Julie were, we guess, about our age and were traveling around for several months on buses and rented motorbikes. They lived in Fleet, Hampshire, the place of my birth and the first 18 years of my life! We had a good chat but then left them as they went on upwards with the help of the motorbike and we were reliant on our legs.  They said something very interesting – that they were travelling to provide a good example to their children about diversity in the world. I would not like to suggest our reasons for travelling are so altruistic but maybe a small point of this blog is to share some of the wonders we are fortunate enough to able to experience, and it may even tempt others to push their own boundaries. Onwards and upwards, finally reaching the summit about 4 hours after we started the climb (that did include a lot of stops, both the rest and savour the scenery). 

We then had a 15km descent ahead of us but this was no whizzy descent.  In Laos, the road surface is always unpredictable. This part of the route had lots of potholes and short stretches where there was no tarmac – and thus only stones and gravel. So the descent was very concentrated as we controlled the trikes carefully over the bumpy sections, still mindful of the previous broken derailleur. We were also in the hottest part of the day and soon lost the refreshing air at 1200m.  

I had had problems with the spokes of my rear mudguard over the last few days.  One spoke was held into its slot with red electrical tape but another one had sheared off completely at the base and was held together with reams of duck tape.  The latter one pinged out again on the descent.  At the bottom we passed a motor repair shop.  We showed them the problem and a young mechanic very carefully welded and moulded the spoke back into position. While he was doing this the rest of the garage mechanics gathered round and studied the trikes.  They seemed impressed that we had come over the hill but I also think they thought we were a bit mad – but maybe that is a feature of travellers from afar! When the repair was complete we asked how much and were told 10,000 kip – around 50 pence.  We gave him 15,000, still less than £1 but he seemed very happy with the tip.

Then we followed the road for the last few kilometers into the town. There is rarely fresh fruit or vegetables in the grocery shops but the market in the town was still going so we got eggs and lovely fresh cauliflower and coriander which David transformed into a delicious egg and cauli curry later on.  We both proved to be hungry and finished it all so hopefully all will be back to normal tomorrow. 

Day 34: Day off the trikes in Nong Khiaw

Apologies for the late posting of this blog – when I would have been writing I was either in bed or vomitting and writing a blog seemed far too much like hard work.  But more of that in a moment.

We had booked a day trip with Tiger Travel which started with a boat ride up the Nam Ou river to a small village, Muang Ngoy.  Nong Khiaw is only a small place but it has hit it big with back-packing tourists because of its spectacular location and there were loads and loads of Europeans who were taking in Nong Khiaw whilst travelling through South East Asia.  We felt older than the vast majority of them, note the absence of signs of an alternative lifestyle such as multiple tattoos or multiple rucksacks and were significantly shorter than most of them.  That is not to give us an inferiority complex but just to say that, as a couple in our 60s, we sort of stuck out as short, “tatless” and staid (must be our floppy hats but we did eschew socks with sandles this time).  We only notice this when we are in a crowd of other travellers, which is pretty rare to be honest.

Bernie being driven off to the boat – on the back of a motorbike and no helmet – when in Rome!

The boat was long and thin (one person wide) and the engine noise made conversation limited; but the scenery was lovely.  High cliffs to begin with then some farmland next to the river including buffalos cooling off in the water.

  After an hour and a half we reached the village and went a little further to a landing stage where we disembarked to start climbing up to a cave and view point.  We reached the cave after about 10 minutes, took our our head torches and entered.  It had a tiny entrance but then expanded out to a long, thin cave system which was about 250m in depth.  This was one of the many caves that villagers used to live in during the bombing raids carried out by the US military (and not officially acknowledged at the time) during the years 1967 to 1973.  I am reading Max Hastings’ book on the Vietnam War which details how the USA dropped more bombs on Laos than were used in the whole of the second world war – all in a pretty futile attempt to stop the Viet Cong supply lines from China.  There is still unexploded ordnance in the jungles and so leaving the path is inadvisable (to say the least).  It was an entire air war – no troops invaded – and yet it caused huge devastation in this beautiful country.

The cave was a cave – with cave features like stalactites and stalagmites.  It also had a large boa constrictor snake that had taken up residence and was seen by others who had sharper eyes.  But I am pleased to say we got out without being aware of the snake’s existence.  Bernie, in particular, would not have been too pleased to know that she was sharing a thin cave with a large snake.  

We then climbed up to the view point which overlooked the river valley.  Having seen so many fantastic views from mountain roads in the past few weeks, we were not blown away by this.

On reflection – not too bad a view!

  But it did give us the chance to meet a lovely couple from Canada where the woman was taking advantage of the 4 over 5 scheme, and travelling for a year with her husband (he got 6 months off) and 3 teenage/student children.  Mention of this scheme brought us back to some people we met in Mexico in 1990 who were doing the same thing.  Essentially, a Canadian public servant can opt for 80% of their pay (which is probably about 90% after tax) and has to work 4 years out of 5, and gets paid for the fifth year without the need to work.  If the UK government wants a scheme which creates both motivation and retention, they could do no better than study the Canadian scheme.  

The view point was crowded and there were giggling youngsters who were carrying on loud banter that was hugely sexual and seemed to have started at least the previous evening nd possibly had been going on for longer.  Travelling and casual sex might be synonymous for some on the road, but perhaps there are others who don’t need to hear the details or the aftermath – especially on a viewpoint.  Or maybe I was just being “Mr Curmudgeon” – something I am working on.

Next we descended to near the river, met up with our guide (who spoke Lao and French but not much English) and ambled into the village.  This has had a lot of investment in recent years with brick houses replacing wooden shacks, mostly on the back of the tourist trade.  

We were confused as to what was happening next as we thought we were going to walk to a waterfall, but we were led back into our little boat.  There is an extent to which, on these trips, one just has to put oneself in the hands of the guide (on the basis they do this every day) and go with the flow – although we find that difficult at times as we are so used to organising our own time.  The boat took us half way back to Nong Khiaw, but then we stopped at another small village, disembarked and understood that we could now walk to the waterfall.  Just outside the village our guide produced “lunch” from his backpack – packs of rice with limited vegetables.  These had been in his pack since the morning; getting hotter and hotter.  We were hungry and had little choice so we consumed them – and both paid the price later.  

The walk to the Tad Mook waterfalls took us through some irrigated rice fields and past an organic farm.  It was getting very hot and it was a relief to reach the shade of the final few hundred metres up to the waterfalls.  They were also crowded but there was room to swim in the pool under the main waterfall, and we duly put our heads under the cascade and felt pummelled by the water.  

The walk back down was easy and we were happy to sit in the boat to go back to Nong Khiaw.  We turned down the chance to change to a kayak when offered because we both felt drained, and then found that there was no kayak on offer anyway (which was a shame for the other two in the group who wanted to paddle back to the town).  

When we got back we made tea, and then crossed the bridge into town for provisions.  In the distance I spied two touring cyclists who seemed to have come from the East – just where we were going tomorrow.  So we busied ourselves across and introduced ourselves to Tino and Alice.  They were from France and had started in Hanoi, and were heading to Bangkok.  So we wanted to get information about the roads they had just travelled and they wanted the same from us.  We agreed to meet a bit later after they had showered and eaten pizza – something Alice had decided she needed after a long day in the saddle and lots of climbing.

We went off to eat and, by chance, bumped into Adrien and Damian so they joined us.  However, by this point, my world was starting to feel distinctly unstable and I doubted I could eat any of the food I had ordered.  I excused myself and went back to the room, leaving Bernie to talk with our friends, although she was not feeling a great deal better than me.  I am pretty confident that it was a bug from the lunchtime meal that had upset my stomach, and it duly all re-emerged.  So I collapsed in bed and felt sorry for myself but it is an almost inevitable part of travelling in this part of the world so I had nothing to complain about.

Bernie went out to meet Tino and Alice and shared travelling tips and road conditions before coming back to collapse herself.