Northern Laos is stunningly beautiful and mountainous, and great for cycling if you are feeling fit. We weren’t. Unfortunately we both picked up a succession of bugs that sapped our strength. We decided to catch a bus after spending a few days in bed. Mr Ping was our cheerful driver with an unblemished record of 15 years of driving only for his steering to fail and the bus going straight on at a bend and hitting a bank and turning on it’s side. Miraculously none of the 7 passengers including a baby or Mr Ping were hurt. We were very lucky not to have gone off the side of the mountain.
pictures courtesy of Victoria. 4 bikes and panniers on the roof
Mr Ping surveys the wreckage
The baby didn’t even cry.
Sebastian and Barbara another couple of touring cyclists were also taking the bus to give Barbara’s bad knee a rest. All 4 of our bikes were stowed on top and were unscathed apart from all breaking rear lights. We unloaded the bikes and then dropped down fourteen km to the next town. The others managed to hitch a ride on the back of a pig lorry and shortly joined us. We were resigned to staying a night at one of the local guest houses but Victoria www.TribalMusicAsia.com an American researcher into Mong tribes was desperate to get back home to Thailand and managed to badger a local tuk tuk driver into taking us onwards. We arrived in Nong Khiaw just in time for an Indian meal and we even managed to find a floor to sleep on.
Poinsettias lined the roads
The roads in Laos were mostly OK the problems came when you hit a bit of road that had been partly resurfaced. Passing cars and lorries enveloped everything in a choking dust. We passed through lots of small villages and it was easy to stock up on water. The temperatures were in the the mid 20s.
We rested a few days in Luang Prabang a pretty town with French colonial buildings on the edge of the Mekong.
We visited the UXO museum there. During the unofficial war on Laos America had dropped the equivalent of 2 tonnes of bombs for every person in Laos. More than 300 people a year were still being killed by UXO, many were children. We had visited the caves in Vieng Xai where the Pathet Laos had sheltered from the bombing.
Hanoi is the first city on our trip that is not ruled by the car. Instead it is ruled by the moped. They are everywhere carrying anything possible from families with 3 children to a couple of sizeable trees. They constantly beep their horns and pay no attention to traffic lights or one way systems. To cross a road you just walk slowly keeping eyes in both directions. The few cars around seem cowed into submission. The big problem is the fumes and particulates they produce making for very poor air quality.
We left our bikes boxed up for a couple of weeks and headed off to Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay by bus. Relaxing in a couple of nice homestays, kayaking and swimming . Halong bay was a lot busier but still very enjoyable and beautiful.
Cycling out of Hanoi was pretty easy. The roads are so congested that everything moves very slowly. We had bought a couple of masks with filters in and we needed them. We were heading for Mai Chau and on to the Vietnamese border. The road was flat to Hoa Binh then the hills started. The roads were OK, you get used to the constant beeping from the traffic and when we hit the main roads there was plenty of room. The hills were long and it was hot, despite this we were faster up some of the hills than some of the big lorries.
We stayed in a stilted house homestay in Mai Chau for a couple of relaxing days.
The road to the border ( the 15 and then the 217 ) were being “improved”. This seemed to consist of digging up a lot of the old road and knocking down cliffs to widen it. This made it very dusty and dangerous in places cycling under unstable looking boulders and bad surfaces.
Things got worse after a night of heavy rain which turned everything into thick red mud making even the downhills very slow.
We stayed in a friendly small family run guest house
People were noticeably more friendly away from the tourist areas, with children shouting their hellos and waving. The food was a lot more basic as well with Pho (noodle soup) and rice being the staples with small amounts of very tough meat and a bit of cabbage. Guest houses were cheap though.
The scenery was beautiful with Karst mountains, tiered paddy fields and bamboo forests. The road was up and down but fortunately it was getting cooler which made climbing a lot easier.