Friday, 21 August 2009


I found Laos to be literally a breath of fresh air, the quiet road through the rolling tropical hills was in stark contrast to the “hustle & bustle” which is much of Vietnam. Thus far the people seem extremely friendly, and there is a continuous chorus of “sapa-dii” (hello) emanating from the stilted bamboo houses (complete with satellite dish for TV reception). In these hill villages the younger children often run around naked (why not? – the climate is good and after a swim in the river they can simply “drip-dry”). As we’ve approached the Mekong valley life appears to have become a bit more modern – but the locals remain friendly. My biggest problem is that my bike (Old Saartjie) is so worn-out that I can’t even use the middle chain ring anymore (a major problem on a hilly road!). I’ve looked around for spares, but around here there is nothing suitable (anyway, I don’t have any money). I spent almost an entire day paying some attention to Old Saartjie and fitting used spares which I've previously replaced on Leana's bike. I initially wrote and published this report in the town of Savannakett on the Mekong river, where we spent 2 days (Thailand is on the far banks - see recently-built Friendship II bridge in background of photo). Since then we have moved further up the Mekong to the town of Tha Khaek. Daily distances cycled in Laos have been:- Xepon 54 km; Donghen 133 km; Savannakett 80 km; and Tha Khaek 131 km. Total distance cycled since Cape Town is 45650 km.


Unable to gain access across the Vietnam border to China in the North, Leana and I had to beat a hasty retreat – I guess it’s not the first such retreat in the past 6 decades or so! Our best option was to cross into Laos from Central Vietnam, which meant a fair amount of back-tracking. First, however, we had to deviate to the N-E coast, to experience the famed Halong Bay – World Heritage Site. From Haiphong (big river port and 3rd largest city) we took a ferry to Cat Ba Island, and stayed over in pretty but touristy Cat Ba town for a day (impressive views from our cheap room – photo). As with many touristy places in this country, karaoke and massage are advertised all over (also known as “singing and sex”). Much of Cat Ba Island consists of beautiful, hilly, tropical forest National Park – through which we cycled to the Northern ferry port. From there the ferry took us through the surreal Halong Bay (flat sea scattered with tall pinnacle rock islands) back to the mainland. Earlier Leana had received spares from SA, and on our Southern retreat one day we spotted a guest house which had adequate space for me to do an overhaul on her bike (with spectators and unwelcome helpers – of course). As fate would have it, 2 days later we cycled the entire day (135 km) in “Typhoon Rain” – deep flooded roads and wet gravel clogging up the new parts on Leana’s bike and destroying what was left of those on old Saartjie (my bike). We retreated back across the DMZ to Dong Ha, from where we headed West on Highway 9 (formerly a branch of the infamous “Ho Chi Minh Trail”) towards Laos. Before reaching the border town of Lao Bao we had to traverse a testing ascent over the “watershed” (where rivers flow East to the sea and inland West to the Mekong river valley). We crossed the border to Laos on the very day our Vietnam visas expired – how’s that for cutting it fine! Daily distances cycled since the retreat from Hanoi are:- HaiPhong 109 km; Cat Ba 14 km (+2hr ferry); HaLong city 37 km (+1 hr ferry); Bieu Nghi 27 km; Nam Dinh 127 km; Tinh Gia 135 km; Vinh 103 km; Ky Anh 104 km; Dong Hoi 96 km; Dong Ha 98 km; and Lao Bao 84 km. Total distance from Cape Town to Lao Bao is 45252 km.


Since my last report from Central Vietnam, we had to get a move-on towards Hanoi in the North. However, both Leana and I were suffering from flu, which hampered our progress somewhat. Therefore we had our visas extended – in the city of Hue. Hue, and surrounding areas, was the scene of some intense battles during the US/Vietnam war. Not too far North of there we crossed the former De-militarised zone (DMZ) on the 17th Parallel, the border between the former North and South of the country. Since the end of the war the ruined cities and towns have been mostly re-built, but in places there are still water-filled bomb craters amongst the rice paddies. Peasants still dig up bomb fragments to sell as scrap metal, and these people continue to be maimed by unexploded ordnance (UXO) – there are big signs in the region warning against this practice. I was again reminded how small the world is, as in the city of Ninh Binh we bumped into British cyclists James and Tracey – who we’d previously met in Cambodia. Just to confirm the tennis-ball size of the globe, in Hanoi we also bumped into Canadian cyclist Marc, who we’d met in Nepal and last seen in Bangkok. In Hanoi we also bumped our heads against the Northern border, as we were shocked to discover that Chinese visas are not available to South Africans in Vietnam. The implication of the non-visas meant that we had to re-invent our route (now I think I know what a headless chicken feels like). Hanoi, the capital and second largest city in Vietnam, is quite pleasant as far as large cities go. Yes, the roads are clogged with throngs of motorbikes, but the French legacy of tree-lined boulevards and architecture is still evident. The old part of the city, where we stayed close to one of the lakes, is interesting to explore and to observe Hanoi people going about their business. Daily distances cycled since my last report from Hoi An have been as follows:- Phu Bai 122 km; Hue 14 km; Dong Ha 73 km; Dong Hoi 104 km; Ky Anh 107 km; Vinh 106 km; Tinh Gia 115 km; Ninh Binh 107 km; and Hanoi 96 km, Total distance cycled from Cape Town to Hanoi is 44318 km.