Greetings from Hue, Vietnam - Farewell to Laos

Sabaai-diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii dudes,

Sabaai-di, man do you hear that a lot in Laos. In Thailand most of the kids speak some English so you have to really get out into the sticks to hear a Sawatdi but outside the main towns of Laos it’s just one constant Sabaai-di from the kids. Sometimes you cycle through a village and it feels like one of those cop target practice sequences where a kid pops up in a window, fires a Sabaai-di at you and you have to spot him and return fire before cycling past at 20 mph.

Anyway what have I done since my last email. We went elephant riding for one. The actual tour was billed as a Mahout training course but I think that was pushing the definition a bit. I don’t actually know anymore about being a Mahout than when I started apart from pick the elephant that looks the most placid. Corinne chose one that looked a bit wild to me and she spent a few hours on the back of an elephant that did pretty much what it wanted and tried to get into fights with other elephants. The highlight of the tour was getting to wash the elephants. We woke at 6, fetched the elephants from the forest and the rode them into the river where we spent a playful half an hour washing the elephants although at the end it looked more like we’d been given the wash. After that it was a 4 hour kayak down the river back to the town of Luang Prabang. Kayaking was mint although it’s amazing how sitting on a bike for 10 months makes you rubbish at everything except cycling. I can pound out hundreds of miles no problem but a few hours of kayaking and I was knackered. We got back to Luang Prabang and collected our bikes from the tour office where I’d found someone had been messing with my speedometer and so it’d been zeroed again. Not the end of the world but a bit annoying.

We set off from Luang Prabang the next morning with Corinne a bit nervous about the impending hills. I’d been reading about a guy who’d followed a similar route to us a few months before and he caught a bus for the 200 kms south to Vien Vang so I figured he was either a bit of a wimp or the hills were serious. We left the town and a few kms later we started climbing. Then we climbed and climbed and then climbed somemore. 20kms later we got to the top of the hill and I could see Corinne wasn’t having much fun. Then it started raining. Coming down hills in the rain in Laos isn’t much fun. The corners are sharp and there’s no crash barriers. The first corner I came round a guy had come off his motorbike and so after a quick check that he was fine we carried on down the hill braking all the way. 12kms later and going down had become as tiring as going up. Then we started climbing and climbing and then climbing somemore. 25 kms later we were still climbing and Corinne was having even less fun. It was still 20 kms to the next town and it was 20kms of climbing as the town was on top of a mountain. I worked out we had three hours of climbing left to do an hour of daylight so we flagged down a bus and got ourselves to the next major town. On the bus I noticed a kid in front was carrying an AK-47 and I was told he was the guard for the bus which didn’t create the sense of safety I expect the bus company was hoping for.

Few days later we got to Vientiane and had a day of the bike and spoilt ourselves at the local restaurants. Laos is an interesting place for it’s contrasts. In the major towns of which I reckon there’s about 4 or 5 you can get great food from all corners of the globe. Outside the cities and noodle soup can be your only choice in some towns which has led me to have a pathological hate for noodle soup. Outside the major towns the place is truly third world although I’ve noticed that even the towns where they have no schools or medical facilities there will always be an extravagant temple. Religion truly is the opium of the people.

We left the capital city and headed south-east. The next major town would be Savannakhet 500kms away so we had a minimum of 5 days of the ubiquitous noodle soup. The other noticeable change outside the major towns is the quality of the accommodation. Cockroaches and squat toilets become the norm with a constant paranoia about bed bugs ensuring a fitful night’s sleep. Having said that no matter how bad it gets I know it’s better than some of the places I’ve slept in the past.

Our first night was spent in Ban Hai which seemed to be populated mostly by men who flirted outrageously with me. I’d walk down the street and you could be sure a few guys would just reach out and feel my arm. A non-English speaking English teacher sat down with us at dinner and proceeded to chat me up while obviously ignoring Corinne. She just sat their and laughed while I made doomed attempts to include her in the conversation.

The next day the rainy season started in earnest. The rain was torrential but it was that beautiful warm tropical rain that feels more like a shower. In the middle of the day we overtook some kids on bikes who then came after us obviously fancying a bit of a race. Being the lovely person that she is Corinne let the kids catch her and then pass her on the downhill. Me being the overtly competitive person let them get within 10 feet of my back wheel, dropped down a few gears and gave them some stick always keeping them the same distance behind but continually increasing the speed until they cracked. I knew Corinne would eventually catch up with me and have a disappointed in me look on her face but hey ho. I’m sure someone will get revenge on my next Monday night club ride.

The next day Corinne was feeling a bit tired as we’d done 3 sequential 100 km days and a nasty headwind had kicked up. She decided to catch a bus after about 50 kms and I’d do the remaining 60 kms on my own. As she’s correctly pointed out it was me who was stupid enough to want to cycle 25,000 kms in under a year so it’s me who has to stick it out on those days when the going gets really tough. I had to laugh though as 5 minutes after she flagged down a bus I met our first fellow cyclist since we left Bangkok. Even more bizarre was that the guy was from Corinne’s home town of Basel and he was on his way back home from Darwin, Oz.

5 days after leaving the capital city we reached the town of Savannakhet on the river Mekong. We planned to have a day off the bike as Bessie was needing some serious TLC as my gear and brake cables of been playing up for a while now so I figured I’d replace them all and retape the handle bars at the same time. Plus it’d be great to have a day or two eating something other than noodle soup.

The guesthouse we stayed in wasn’t fantastic but it had a great mix of people. Before I started on my travels I was probably a bit cynical about the travelers I expected to meet. My vision was one of people out in the world “trying to find themselves” or people just spending a year getting hammered in the backpacker hostels. I know those people exist and certain countries do have a reputation as places where people are just looking for the next cheap party and not caring what impression they make on the local people. In Laos though I’ve met a different type of traveler. Most are genuinely interested in the region and many are actively helping the people. Everyone has an interesting story with a genuine passion for making a difference. One night we had around 10 of us sitting round a table and it was 10 different nationalities with all the differing viewpoints that come from different parts of the world.

After a day off the bike we headed east for the 250 km ride to the Laos/Vietnam border. The wind had been coming from the east since we’d headed south down the Mekong so I anticipated a tough ride over to the coast and it turned out as expected. It was a fairly non-descript ride except for the masses of kids who instead of shouting Sabaai-di as we cycled past would shout bye-bye. It’s difficult to explain how excited the kids get when they sees us coming but a few times we’d have groups of kids running next to us shouting bye bye and doing high-fives. At one point I went past 5 kids standing in a row and managed to get them all high-fived. All those years as a bowler coming in handy at last.

We sailed over the border and into Vietnam with no great hassles apart from the usual thing of being stopped every 5 metres to show our passports. One thing Communist/Socialist countries have in common all over the world is too many people working at the border who have nothing to do and so they all just ask to see your passport to look important. Eventually we left the border with our only problem being a lack of the local currency. Luckily, Corinne had some universally accepted dollars on her which got us a bed and some food for the night. A strange thing about Vietnam is that the restaurants and cafes all have these little tiny chairs and tables. I know the people are smaller but not that much smaller than Laos and Thailand and yet you sit in these places feeling like Gulliver.

The ride from the border was something special with great views and minimal traffic. That leads me to my current impression of cycling in Vietnam. We left Dong Ha this morning in torrential rain but with a beauty of a tailwind and managed the 75 km ride in about 3 hours riding time. The traffic is chaos though. The drivers here are probably as bad as Laos except in Vietnam they have more cars/trucks/buses in a km than they have in the entire of Laos. To make things even more interesting, Vietnamese truck drivers communicate via high powered horns and use them at every opportunity even if it’s just to let you know they’re three feet away from your right ear. We have a hard shoulder to ride on which is a great help but it doesn’t make for a great ride. Our original plan was to stay next to the coast all the way south but we’re considering kicking inland after Nha Trang which is about 600kms south. It’ll mean some some climbing in the central highlands but I can see the coastal route wearing after a while. We’ll see.

Anyway so now we’re in Hue. Our first tourist town since Savannakhet. It’s notable for the number of tourists being pushed around in cyclos. When we go out for a walk we’re constantly hassled by people who want to cycle us round the city which seems somehow perverse. For me it makes a pleasant change to get out and have a walk. Tonight we’re going to find a decent restaurant that serves wine and have a bottle or two before we start the ride south tomorrow morning. Hopefully that tailwind will continue for a while.

Catch you all later.

Lots of love as always,

Craig. XXX

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