Category Archives: Vietnam

Vinh to Hue 23 – 27 May 2013

Before we arrived in Vietnam we’d heard mixed reports about it from other travellers we’d met and blogs we’d read.  Some people love it here; others can’t wait to leave.  We’ve tried really hard to keep an open mind and form our own opinions.  I think I’m liking it more than Keith is….but there’ve certainly been moments when I’ve lost my temper with bus and lorry drivers too.

As mentioned in the last blog we crossed from Laos at Na Meo, and then made our way along route 217 to join route 15 at Quan Hoa and then on to the Ho Chi Minh Highway (also route 15) at Ngoc Lac, where we finally found an ATM! This part of the route had felt quite remote.  Towns and villages were small and relatively few and far between.

The main industry, particularly along the mountainous route 217, is chopping bamboo.  Along the roadside men and women were engaged sawing huge bamboo poles into metre lengths, which they then quartered lengthwise and bundled up onto lorries to be taken to a more centralised processing point.  Here the bamboo was split further into slim sticks and bundled up again.  We wondered if this might be the supply source for the millions of disposable bamboo chopsitcks that are used and discarded across China and SE Asia every day.

Bamboo being chopped into metre-ish lengths at the roadside

Bamboo being chopped into metre-ish lengths at the roadside

Bundles of bamboo sticks

Bundles of bamboo sticks

Transporting bamboo downriver

Transporting bamboo downriver

Once out of the mountains and onto route 15 the chopstick industry was replaced by rice harvesting.  Despite being a fairly main highway, the road was often reduced to just half a lane, and sometimes completely blocked with rice, peanuts and rice-stalks (looking like straw or hay) drying in the sun.  The rice and peanuts were usually restricted to the verge, but the rice straw was regularly spread across the entire road and the traffic often had no choice but to run right over it. To be fair there wasn’t really anywhere else to spread it….all the surrounding land is water-logged rice-paddies….but where did they dry the harvest before the road was built?

Rice and rice-stalks spread to dry on the Ho Chi Minh Highway

Rice and rice-stalks spread to dry on route 15

Even in busy town centres the harvest takes priority

Even in busy town centres the harvest takes priority

Scooters’ exhausts were festooned with dried stalks and the smell of baking greenery assaulted the nostrils in the harsh midday sun.  At least the hills here were now just gently rolling and it was getting easier to keep sufficient forward momentum to create a breeze and stop my brains from leaking out of my ears…but progress has remained hampered by frequent stops in the shade to rest and guzzle quenching cold drinks or eat watermelon or the divinely plump lychees on sale at roadside stalls.  I wasn’t sure if I fancied trying salted lemon flavour…but it’s actually delicious and very refreshing.  Keith is craving orange Fanta and is regularly disappointed by the scant selection of drinks offered at most places we stop at.

 

The plumpest, juiciest lychees we've ever had.  We're addicted!

The plumpest, juiciest lychees we’ve ever had. We’re addicted!

We followed route 15 to Tan Ky then route 46 to Vinh and then headed briefly onto route 1 – the main road artery running from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City in the south.  We didn’t spend long on route 1 before abandoning our map and heading out on smaller roads with a view to camping on the beach.  Keith loves swimming in the sea and after enjoying many beach camps on our 2011 trip he was really looking forward to a quiet beach camp and a dip in the South China Sea.  Sadly our first beach experience in Vietnam was not quite what he had in mind.  Within moments of stepping onto the beach we were being annoyed by bunch of kids who simply would not keep their hands off the Pino.  Keith did manage to go for a swim and I tried to read quietly in between glaring at our tormentors, but after a couple of hours when the time had come to start looking for somewhere quiet to put the tent, the kids had swelled in ranks and been joined by a load of adults who were equally incapable of keeping their hands off the Pino.  We decided to give up on that particular beach.  A few kilometres later we gave up on camping altogether and got a hotel…ah, aircon and a shower!  I can’t say I was unhappy.

Route 1 gets bad press in cycling blogs for being busy and chaotic…which it is….but it’s not as bad as many roads we’ve been on and it does have the advantage of being flat, unlike the HCM highway which at this point is rolling over the hills to the west.  The tarmac on route 1 is also in pretty good condition so we were finally able to cruise at 20-25kph and get some distance covered…something we need to do if we’re to see Ho Chi Minh City and exit Vietnam before our visas expire.

The biggest downside to route 1 is the Vietnamese love of driving with their hand on the horn.  It’s just like being back in China…although with margially fewer dangerous driving maneuvers in evidence here….although that could simply be due to fewer drivers rather than better drivers.  I don’t think quite so many people here pull out without looking, but there’s enough of them to drive Keith to distraction….and that combined with the people on scooters who ride alongside us beeping their horn for no apparent reason has resulted in Keith swerving towards people and screaming “Toot, toot!” in their faces.  Another habit that’s getting on our nerves is the vocal minority who managed to make a simple greeting sound like a threat.  Even when off the bike, a stroll up the high street in a mountain town induced a peremptory bellow of “Hello” or, even more annoying, “Hey!” or “Oi!” from each and every shop.  Some people smile and say hello genuinely, which is lovely.  I always try to smile and wave back if it’s done nicely, but unfortunately for a fairly large minority it seems to be some sort of sport to bait foreigners.  We started off responding by shouting “Sin Jao” back , but I think the best response is just to ignore the bellowers and concentrate on the friendly people instead, of which there are plenty.  We are particularly grateful to the friendly cafe owners who brought out free rice and vegetables to bolster our midday meal when they realised we were on a budget.

With just one small hill to cross on route 1 we made fast progress from Vinh to just north of Dong Hoi where we cut inland to do some sightseeing.  Paradise cave was discovered just 8 years ago, and has got to be one of the most stunning places we’ve ever visited.  We’d had a tough day getting there and already had 100km on the clock as we literally had to get off and push the bike over the two short 20%+ climbs on the final approach to the car park, and were then faced with a kilometre walk and 500 step climb to the cave entrance, but once inside any tiredness was forgotten as we descended the wooden stairway into the deliciously cool depths and our eyes widened as an ornately decorated natural cathedral opened out before us.  The stairs wound down around gigantic stalagmites, and the cave roof and walls were draped with mineral folds that hung in thick curtains and looked for all the world as if you could wrap yourself up in them.  At the bottom of the steps, the wonderworld continued.  A wooden walkway took us round a corner and before our overawed senses chamber after chamber of glittering rock formations opened up.  Pipes like huge church organs lined the walls.  Silver-sheened fans of intricate tracery stacked metres tall to give an odd sense of both delicacy and immovable strength.  Our sense of reverence and wonder was of course shattered momentarily when a local tourist shoved his face into Keith’s to scream “Hello!’ before snickering and rejoining his moronic friends.  Ah, the joy of travel and experiencing other cultures.

The gigantic stalagmite near Paradise Cave entrance (viewed from below with the stairs winding up around it)

The gigantic stalagmite stack near Paradise Cave entrance (viewed from below with the stairs winding up around it)

20130525_19-VN-ParadiseCave.jpg

The photos just don’t give a sense of scale….this formation was enormous

The cavern carried on for a kilometre, all filled with extraordinary geological formations, and with a further 30km of cave beyond not open to the public

The cavern carries on for a kilometre, all filled with extraordinary geological formations, and with a further 30km of cave beyond not open to the public

A note to other cyclists planning a visit: there are two routes from the village of Son Trach to the cave.  We did both as a loop and are really glad we took them (entirely by accident) in the order that we did.  The Lonely Planet said there was accommodation in Son Trach so we were trying to find that with the intention of checking in and then heading to the cave unencumbered, but our map didn’t show Son Trach and signage petered out, so we asked locals for directions.  In hindsight it’s quite clear on googlemaps so we should have looked at that.  We ended up cycling west on the HCM highway’s eastern branch, past the entrance to the national park (the junction with route TL20, down which we would have found Son Trach) and we eventually turned south onto the HCM highway western branch where the caves are signed as being 16km away.  This route was the longer of the two routes but predominantly flat and took us through rice paddies surrounded by stunning karst scenery and then into the national park.  The only hills were in the last couple of kms and then the two horrible 20% ones on the approach road to the caves car park.  After seeing the caves we had finally worked out where we were on our map and decided to turn right after exiting the caves approach road and make it a loop back to Son Trach.  There was a bit of a climb and then a nice descent down to the crossroads where we turned left onto the TL20 which would eventually take us to Son Trach, but it was getting late so we camped on a gravelled clearing.  The next morning we were really pleased we hadn’t tried to make it to Son Trach the previous evening as the hills were really steep and very hard work even in the relative cool of the morning.  The scenery – heavily jungled karst – did make up for it and we felt as if we were in the middle of nowhere, but we were really glad we hadn’t been faced with those hills on our way out to the caves as we really needed fresh legs to tackle them.

Heading into the stunning jungle-clad Karst of Phong Nha National Park

Heading into the dramatic jungle-clad Karst of Phong Nha National Park

Boats on the river at Son Trach

Boats on the river at Son Trach

From Son Trach we rejoined the HCM highway eastern branch and headed east on the rolling road to Dong Hoi where we re-joined the busy-but-flat route 1 and then made relatively quick progress even through the heat of the afternoon to camp just a few kilometres short of Ho Xa, which set us up nicely for a visit to the Vinh Moc Tunnels the next day.

On our way to the tunnels we stopped for breakfast in Ho Xa market, where our MAG-badged pannier was spotted by some MAG employees, who stopped to chat and have their photo taken with us.

MAG in Vietnam

MAG employees admiring the Pino in Ho Xa

As in Laos, Vietnam’s social and economic development is seriously hampered by the legacy of unexploded ordnance (UXO).  Quang Tri province, which straddles the 17th parallel (the historic divide between north & south Vietnam) and where Ho Xa and the Vinh Moc tunnels are located, has recorded the highest number of casualties since the end of the war (6,760 casualties, including 2,774 killed) and 100% of the communities are still reported as contaminated.

From January to March this year MAG cleared 107,708 square metres of land in Vietnam…that’s about 15 football pitches….and destroyed 5,544 UXO.  The more we learn about the UXO problem the more shocked we are….that’s a lot of bombs in a relatively small area.  If you want to support the work of MAG please make a donation through the following link to our Just Giving page.JustGiving - Sponsor me now!

After saying cheerio to the MAG guys we ate our breakfast (delicious little shrimp parcels and some ginger dumplings) and set out towards the beautiful South China Sea coastline where the Vinh Moc Tunnels were home to several hundred civilians and fighters during the American-Vietnam war.  The Americans believed the villagers of Vinh Moc were supplying the Communist North with food and armaments, so they bombed them, forcing the villagers to dig in and re-locate themselves first 10metres and later, 30 metres underground.

I know that Asians are generally of a slighter build than Westerners, but you really wouldn’t have wanted to be claustrophobic living there.  After just 30 minutes of wandering around my neck was cricked, my back ached, and I really couldn’t wait to get out….and we had the luxury of being the only people in the tunnels, not one of the 60 plus families who lived in them for six years.

One of the Vinh Moc tunnel entrances

One of the Vinh Moc tunnel entrances

The living quarters for a family

The living quarters for a family

The maternity suite (yes, my head was wedged against the tunnel roof)

The maternity suite (yes, my head was wedged against the tunnel roof)

After visiting the tunnels we stayed on minor roads along the coastline and Keith finally got to swim on a deserted and idyllic beach.

Keith couldn't persuade me to camp here....what was I thinking???

Keith couldn’t persuade me to camp here….what was I thinking???

He tried to persuade me to camp, and I have to say I was tempted, but we’d set our sights on the historic town of Hue some 100km further down the coast and I REALLY wanted a shower and a night with aircon instead of sweltering in a sweat-soaked, airless tent.  It was a long day in the saddle, and dark as we approached Hue, with the only illumination coming from oncoming headlights and eerie, soundless flashes of lightning in the distant sky.

We’d been recommended a hotel by Ian, a cycle tourist we met travelling in the other direction that afternoon, and are very grateful to him for his recommendation.  The Phoenix is a lovely hotel.  We’re being treated like royalty, being fed free fresh fruit and cups of tea, and are even getting some laundry done as the price is not bad at all.

We’ll be heading on south in the next few days.  And to finish with, as ever, here are a few more pics of Northern Vietnam:

Rice paddies and karst scenery

Rice paddies and karst scenery

A church!! We hadn't seen one of those in a while, but it turned out to be the first of many.

A church!! We hadn’t seen one of those in a while, but it turned out to be the first of many.

The harvest in full flow

The harvest…being interrupted by the passing of a Pino

20130520-11_VN-RiceHarvest

A rice threshing machine in action

A rice threshing machine in action

Rice noodles hung out to dry

Rice noodles hung out to dry

Preparing the paddies for the next crop

Preparing the paddies for the next crop

Working on the chaingang

Working on the chaingang

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Freshly squeezed sugar cane juice....delicious!

Freshly squeezed sugar cane juice….delicious!

A cow that's trying to be a camel

A cow trying to be a camel

Campsite sunset

Campsite sunset

 

 

Phonsavan to Vinh 8 – 22 May 2013

Enigmatic stones on the Plain of Jars, a hidden city in the caves of Vieng Xai, 12% hills in 35+degree heat, two campsites infested with leeches (but thankfully not unexploded ordnance) and one campsite disturbed by the police, (who expected us to pack up and cycle in the dark to a guesthouse, which may or may not exist, 20km away. Haha. Funny guys!). Yup, it’s been another fun-packed few days for your favourite Pino pedallers.

North eastern Laos has felt a little different to the parts of Laos we’ve been in before. Although the area is poorer than where we’ve been before, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of houses that are built of brick – we think this could be a result of the influx of aid from the Soviet Union and other communist countries when America finally stopped bombing the cr@p out of the place in 1973. Another hangover from this period is the number of elderly Kamaz trucks on the road. We also noticed that both brick and bamboo buildings were now surrounded by fences, carefully denoting each family’s plot of land, and quite unlike the clusters of houses jostling together in villages elsewhere. The most obvious difference though was the sudden decline in tourists. In Phonsavan we saw a handful of other ‘falangs’ but from there on it was clear the guidebook had been accurate when it described this corner of Laos as one of the least visited. The only other Western faces we’ve seen belonged to a Spanish couple on a homestay in a medium-size village we passed through. We’re not sure why this part of Laos is less popular as it’s got a fascinating history and the scenery is truly breathtaking.

The town of Phonsavan captured our attention for several days. It’s set in rolling pastureland that looks like alpine meadows, surrounded by conifer trees (where did the jungle go??). It’s also one of the parts of Laos that was particularly targeted by US bombers during their ‘secret war’ of ’64-’73. We visited the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) Information Centre and were shocked by what we learnt there.

MAG trucks ready for action in Phonsavan

MAG trucks ready for action in Phonsavan

The legacy of those nine dark years continues to wreck lives and stifle development in Laos to this day, in the form of unexploded ordnance (UXO). We want to support the work of MAG here in Laos and other countries contaminated by UXO, and if you haven’t already done so then please do visit our ‘Giving’ page where you can read more about the work of MAG or go straight to our ‘Just Giving’ page to make a donation.
JustGiving - Sponsor me now!
We saw first-hand the results of the work that MAG has been doing here in Laos when we cycled out to see some of the iron-age stone jars that give the area its name: the Plain of Jars. In between the numerous bomb-craters that pock-mark the earth are scattered several hundred huge stone jars dating from 500BC to 500AD.

A crater-scarred hillside on the Plain of Jars

A crater-scarred hillside on the Plain of Jars

The jars are located at 90 sites – each containing between 1 and 400 jars – and seven sites have now been cleared of UXO and are open to tourists. Laos is applying for UNESCO World Heritage status for the entire area to help preserve the jars and boost tourism, but much more work needs to be done to make the area safe for tourists before that status can be granted. Three of the jars sites, (the three that were first made safe and opened to tourists between 2004 & 2007 – over 30 years after the bombing stopped) are within 35km of Phonsavan so we decided to do a day-trip without the panniers and trailer (a wise decision given that a few km out of town the roads deteriorate to hard-packed dirt) to visit them. On the way, we passed a MAG team clearing UXO from some farmland.

MAG at work - their signage is hidden behind Keith's left thigh

MAG at work – their signage is hidden behind Keith’s left thigh

Nice to see this particular clean-up operation is funded by the US

Nice to see this particular clean-up operation is funded (in part at least) by the US

If our visit to the MAG info centre hadn’t brought home the message that UXO is a real and present danger then this surely did.

Despite their location at the heart of worst UXO contamination, the jars sites are strangely peaceful places. At site one there were a couple of Laotian tourists, and a few more arrived as we were leaving, but we had sites two and three to ourselves.

Jar site one

Jar site one

A number of theories have been mooted as to the purpose of the jars. Local tales favour an ancient race of giants who used the jars as ‘LaoLao’ (rice whisky) glasses. Another theory sticks with the LaoLao theme but suggests they were vats for fermenting vast quantities of the stuff for standard-sized humans (now that would be some party!). The most widely accepted theory is that they are some kind of funerary urn, but whether for a whole body (they’re certainly more than big enough to fit one) or for cremated remains is still being researched and debated.

MAG were brought in to make the sites safe for tourists and have done this in two ways. Between white markers the ground has been swept with metal detectors and any ordnance above ground or below ground has been destroyed. Outside this area are red markers which denote where surface UXO has been removed, but not the underground ordnance. You are advised not to walk in this area. Working in such a historically significant area was particularly challenging and MAG worked with archaeology experts to develop new methods to destroy the bombs without damaging the artefacts.

Jar site three

Jar site three

With time ticking away on our visas we had to drag ourselves away from Phonsavan and head north east towards Sam Neua and Vieng Xai. The terrain became even hillier than it had been between Luang Prabang and Phonsavan. And the days became even hotter. We were lucky on the first couple of big climbs as the weather was fairly overcast, but even so we still dripped with sweat. And then it got really tough. We’re rarely confronted with gradients of more than 5 or 6%…but from Phonsavan to Vieng Xai we were regularly seeing over 12%….a steepness that has us straining every fibre just to keep our heavy rig moving forward at a pitiful 5kph. Add to this a blazing sun and not a breath of wind and we soon realised we were not going to be having a fun day. We hauled ourselves over 1450m that day (the height of Ben Nevis) but covered just 50km. I’m not sure exactly how hot it was, but it was hot enough that even when the road levelled off we were still panting for breath and unable to recover ourselves. Progress slowed to a crawl. We would literally flop off the bike in a patch of shade and lie on the road until we’d composed ourselves, then haul ourselves back into the saddles, strain on the pedals, and gasp and pant our way up to the next patch of shade. On flatter sections we might manage 2-3km between rests. On the steeper sections we sometimes couldn’t even keep the pedals turning for 1km before having to stop. It was a long, long day. We tried pushing the bike but to be honest it was no better. Even the descents were stressful as they were so steep we cooked our brakes, glazing the surface of the pads and losing braking power. We had to stop and let them cool down. It’s the first time that’s happened to us in over 27,000km (inc 2011 trip). After that we began employing our emergency v-brake to take some of the strain off the disks. By 4.30 our legs were like jelly, our lungs were scorched, our heads were melting. On the outskirts of a village we found a little track leading to a clearing that was just the right size for our tent. It was a bit closer to habitation than we’d prefer, but because of the steep terrain suitable sites were few and far between, and to be honest, we were so cooked we didn’t care. We just wanted to stop.

A few of the villagers came to gawp at us as we cooked our dinner, but they politely left when we served up and began to eat. By 8.30 I was in bed and drifting in that ‘exhausted but unable to sleep’ state that can be rather irksome, and Keith was typing up his log. At 9 o’clock we were disturbed by torches and voices outside the tent. It was the police. I was not pleased. I HATE being woken up, particularly when I’ve finally dozed off after the aforementioned irksome state of affairs. They insisted on seeing our passports and visas. I was all for telling them to bloody well come back in the morning, but thankfully Keith was in a more sensible frame of mind. After failing to put them off by explaining that we were in bed and trying to sleep he gallantly got dressed and went out into the bug-infested night whilst I wrapped a scarf around my head and tried to ignore the torchlight glaring into the tent. They spent the next 40 minutes laboriously copying out all our passport and visa details (not made easier by the fact that border guards never seem to put their stamp on a page anywhere near the visa, which had clearly expired, and the visa extension we got in Luang Prabang was only denoted by a biro’d-in note over a stamp that said we could now stay until the 17th instead of the 8th). Keith explained we have pedalled from the UK and showed them our route across Laos. He told them what a tough day we’d had and how tired we were, and of course also threw in some nice comments about how much we like Laos etc. The conversation eventually went something along the lines of this:
Plod: “Why are you here?”
Keith: “We’re cycling to Sam Neua and then to Vietnam.”
Plod: “ Why aren’t you in a guesthouse?”
Keith: “We stayed in guesthouses in Luang Namtha, Nambak, Luang Prabang and Phonsavan, and now we’re going to Sam Neua where we will stay in another guesthouse, but in between it is too far for us to pedal so we camp.”
Plod: “But why are you camping here and not staying in a guesthouse?”
Keith: “Because today it was very hot and the hills were very steep. We have only been able to cycle 50km and we have not seen any guesthouses.”
Plod: “But what do you intend to do here?”
Keith: “We intend to go to sleep – we were asleep. We are very tired.”
Plod: “We need you to stay in a guesthouse.”
Keith: “Is there one in the village?”
Plod: “No. But I think there is one in village X which is about 20km away.”
Keith: “It has taken us all day to ride 50km. I don’t think we can ride another 20km. We are too tired. It is now half past nine at night and dark. The road surface is too dangerous to ride in the dark.”
Plod: “Well, perhaps we can let you stay here for tonight. Are you planning on going into the village? You must not go into the village tonight.”
Keith: “I don’t want to go into the village. I just want to go to bed!”

Honestly. It really was that ridiculous, and I don’t know how Keith kept his polite demeanour. I was gnashing my teeth and muttering dark curses as I really wanted to be asleep and not listening to stupid conversations.

The next day we had more steep hills, but thankfully not so many, and we were helped up one of them by a couple of youngsters on a scooter. They started off insisting on pushing the bike whilst we pedalled (one kid on foot pushing us, the other riding the scooter), and then we hit upon being towed by the scooter. It was rather precarious as I had to lean right forward to grab the handle on the back of the scooter without my pedals bashing into it – and even then there was barely enough room – but it got up us up a couple of steep kilometres that would have taken us considerably longer under our own steam. We gave the guys our business cards by way of a memento and a little thank you, but then they rather spoiled their spontaneous act of kindness by asking for petrol money.

The kids who gave us a tow up the final steep hill section

The kids who gave us a tow up the final steep hill section

After being disturbed by the plods we took more care the following night to camp well away from habitation. Sadly our ‘perfect’ site turned out to be occupied by an army of little blood-suckers. We thought leeches only lived in damp conditions on riverbanks or near ditches, but twice now we’ve found them in grass where we’re trying to camp. The first night we found them wasn’t too bad, but on the second occasion they were everywhere. Putting the tent up and unpacking our things took far longer than usual as we had to dance around and keep our eyes on our feet to catch them before they breached the shoe/sock barrier and made contact with soft, juicy flesh. Somewhat scarily, crushing them with rocks had little effect – after a few minutes the crumpled body would re-inflate and begin looping towards you like some unstoppable zombie-leech. A quick snip with a pair of scissors is the only answer.

Leech on my helmet - ugh

Leech on my helmet – ugh

We rolled through Sam Neua, sad that we hadn’t the time to linger as the market looked like a good one, and then there was just one more small climb to breach before rolling into beautiful Vieng Xai.

The beautiful approach road to Vieng Xai from Sam Neua

The beautiful approach to Vieng Xai from Sam Neua

If we’d thought the rest of Laos was stunning then we were lost for words when we got to Vieng Xai. Densely jungled hills surround a small plain that’s punctured by grey karst peaks dripping with yet more foliage.

A heavily scented frangipani blossom

A heavily scented frangipani blossom

Frangipani trees (the national flower of Laos) scent the air and although it’s not a large town it’s been built with wide boulevards and elegant residences that housed the victorious leaders of the Pathet Lao (who subsequently became the governing party in Lao People’s Democratic Republic) when the American bombing finally ceased.

Frangipani trees outside one of the Pathet Lao leaders' houses in Vieng Xai

Frangipani trees outside one of the Pathet Lao leaders’ houses in Vieng Xai

For nine long years the fight for independence was directed from a series of caves built into the karst cliffs around modern-day Vieng Xai. At the time the town didn’t exist, it was simply jungle. Over 2000 people lived in the cave complexes, only able to leave after dark to try to grow some rice and gather food. The seven leaders of the Soviet-funded Pathet Lao had their headquarters here and directed the civil war effort against the US-funded Royalist party from these caves. Against all the odds communication lines were maintained and convoys of food to supplement what they could grow at night managed to get through despite the constant bombardment. Allegedly the US spent $2million a day on bombs. It’s inconceivable that people survived here…and yet they did, raising their families, schooling their children, and defending their land as best they could. We went on a guided tour of the caves and were impressed – there was everything from government offices to a hospital, to a cinema, all hidden in the rock.

A cinema in a cave - now used for civic events

A cinema in a cave – now used for civic events

From Vieng Xai it is just fifty-five (thankfully predominantly flat or downhill) kilometres to the border with Vietnam. It’s a little-used border so was a breeze to cross. At the Laos side there was no queue at all and we were quickly stamped through. On the Vietnam side there was a queue at customs, but by the time we’d had our passports and visas checked the cars had vanished and we just opened a couple of panniers for inspection and then were waved on our way.

First impressions of Vietnam are:

1 – The roads are awful! We’re hoping matters will improve when we get off the minor road we’re currently on, but at the moment we’re bumping along on broken tarmac punctuated with sections of rock and dirt.

2 – The Vietnamese people seem as determined as the Chinese to abuse our poor Pino. We stopped to buy some eggs just a couple of kilometres over the border, and although we only stopped for a five minutes we had to almost forcibly prevent a woman and a few moments later, her son, from using the Pino as a climbing frame. Grrr.

3 – The Vietnamese are just as noisy as the Chinese, shrieking ‘Hello!’ repeatedly from the minute they see us until the minute we fade into the distance, hooting their horns at anything and everything else on the road, and shouting in hotel corridors until late into the night.

4 – There are no ATMs in the mountains. It took us four days to find one. Luckily we’d bought some Vietnamese Dong back in Luang Prabang in Laos.

Matters improved a little on our second day in Vietnam – there were longer stretches of better tarmac and although people like to touch the bike no-one actually tried to clamber on it again. And the owner of a cafe we stopped in for lunch was really kind to us when Keith took ill (it wasn’t her food, he’d been feeling peaky for the hour before lunch). She let him sleep on a bench and gave him some paracetamol and some other unidentified drugs after he’d finally rushed into the street to vomit. An hour later and he was feeling sufficiently revived to make it to the next town where we took a guesthouse for a couple of nights so Keith could recover properly in an ensuite aircon room – much nicer than being ill in a sweaty tent.

The days have continued to be punishingly hot as we’ve made our way down the Ho Chi Minh Highway (good tarmac but frequently reduced to half a lane by harvested crops that have been spread out to dry on the road). We reached the coast yesterday and Keith enjoyed a quick dip in the South China Sea. We haven’t seen the sea since our ferry crossing from Harwich to Hook of Holland a year ago.

We’ll write more about Vietnam in our next post and leave you with a few last pictures from lovely Laos.

Queuing for the ATM in Phonsavan

Queuing for the ATM in Phonsavan

Heavy traffic on the back roads between Jars site three and Phonsavan

Heavy traffic on the back roads between Jars site three and Phonsavan

Looks like fun!

That looks like fun!

An unimpressed dog. We saw all manner of livestock attached to motorbikes on our travels.  Baskets of chickens were very common, as were pigs, slung in small, pig-sized wire baskets like pink torpedos on either side of the bike.  One day, whilst having lunch, we heard a goat approaching at speed, and looked up to see a motobike zip by carrying two men with a goat sandwiched between them.

An unimpressed dog.
We saw all manner of livestock attached to motorbikes on our travels. Baskets of chickens were very common, as were pigs, slung in small, pig-sized wire baskets like pink torpedos on either side of the bike. One day, whilst having lunch, we heard a goat approaching at speed, and looked up to see a motobike zip by carrying two men with a goat sandwiched between them.

Preparing rice paddies

Preparing rice paddies

Cluster bomb casings being used as decoration/boundary markers.  We also saw them used as supports for houses.  Whilst re-use of items is nice to see, it is not without dangers - adults and children alike become used to seeing these as harmless every day items and that familiarity contributes to some of the accidents when live bombs are encountered.

Cluster bomb casings being used as decoration/boundary markers. We also saw them used as supports for houses. Whilst re-use of items is nice to see, it is not without dangers – adults and children alike become used to seeing these as harmless every day items and that familiarity contributes to some of the accidents when live bombs are encountered.