Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Day 89. Vientiane

0 km. Taking it easy in Vientiane, strolling the banks of the Mekong and eating baguettes.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Day 88 - Near Vientiane to Vientiane

Start: 20 km north of Vientiane
End: Vientiane, Laos
Distance: 16 km
Time: 1'02"
Avg: 15.6 k/h
Max: 24.9 k/h
Total: 5871 km
Total riding days: 65
Riding hours: 0620 - 0845

OK, maybe I was only 16 km from Vientiane. Get stuck in a traffic jam on the way into town. Haven't seen one of those for a while. Vientiane is a tiny place; two pedal-strokes and you're through.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Day 87 - Houay Mo to near Vientiane

Start: Near Houay Mo, Laos
End: 20 km north of Vientiane
Distance: 137 km
Time: 7'10"
Avg: 19.1 k/h
Max: 54.5 k/h
Total: 5856 km
Total riding days: 64
Riding hours: 0720 - 1735

Easy riding; it's flat most of the day. Eat a very large watermelon in one sitting, to the astonishment of the woman who sold it to me. Can't find anywhere to camp; it gets dark - a monk lets me camp in the garden of his wat (temple).

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Day 86 - Phoukhoun to Houay Mo

Start: Phoukhoun
End: North shore of Nam Ngum reservoir, near Houay Mo, Laos
Distance: 127 km
Time: 6'39"
Avg: 19.1 k/h
Max: 61 k/h
Total: 5718 km
Total riding days: 63
Riding hours: 0745 - 1650

BIG descent down towards the Mekong valley. Camped out on the lakeshore - the lake is full of fishermen puttering about in their long-tailed boats, checking their nets. A nice warm swim. The bucket shower in Phoukhoun was very c-c-c-cold.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Day 85 - Phonsovan to Phoukoune

Start: Near Phonsovan
End: Phoukhoune / Phoukhoun / Phoukhun, Laos
Distance: 120 km
Time: 8'00"
Avg: 15 k/h
Max: 48 k/h
Total: 5591 km
Total riding days: 62
Riding hours: 0705 - 1735

Misty morning, sunny afternoon, but it's not hot. This road is supposed to be a bit dangerous, so I rode fast. Went past Phoukhoun and tried to camp but was arrested, in the friendliest possible way, by three plain-clothes soldiers with AK47 machine guns and powerful motorbikes. Sent back to Phoukhoun to overnight in a guest house.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Day 84 - Far from Phonsavan to near the other side of Phonsiovan

Start: Jungle, north of Phonsovan
End: 24 km west of Phonsovan, Laos
Distance: 140 km
Time: 8'23"
Avg: 16.7 k/h
Max: 51.5 k/h
Total: 5471 km
Total riding days: 61
Riding hours: 0710 - 1730

Ooooeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee a big downhill, then a flatter bit, then up again. And a bit down. Camped out under a tree. It's warmer down here - up in the mountains I had to get my sleeping bag out.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Day 83 - Sam Neua to somewhere quite a long way from Phonsavan

Start: Near Sam Neua, Laos
End: 114 km north of Phonsavan, Laos
Distance: 105 km
Time: 8'11"
Avg: 12.7 k/h
Max: 45 k/h
Total: 5330 km
Total riding days: 60
Riding hours: 0720 - 1730

Ouch. This road hurts. It goes up and up and up. Never a pass, just another ridge to climb and snake.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Day 82. Na Meo to near Sam Neua

Start: Na Meo, Vietnam
End: 21 km beyond Sam Neua (aka Xam Neua), Laos
Distance: 108 km
Time: 7'34"
Avg: 14.3 k/h
Max: 50 k/h
Total: 5226 km
Total riding days: 59
Riding hours: 0720 - 1730

Got into Laos at last. Third time lucky. The roads are good, but they have a nasty habit of climbing every hill in sight. Nothing but tiny villages until Sam Neua, where there is a bank, market and a few guesthouses. But I am in a hurry so I press on, and camp by the side of the road in the jungle.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Day 81 - Huang Phu to Na Meo

0 km.

Takes all day to bus, walk, hitch and motorbike-taxi it up to the border post at Nameo. By the time I arrive, it has closed for the day. My bike is still there, though, being looked after by the customs officer in his hut.

I spend the night in a guesthouse at the border, where a large mouse (or possibly a small rat) drops from the ceiling and lands six inches from my head. I scream like a girl.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Day 80 - Hanoi to Huang Phu

0 km.

Picked up Lao visa in Hanoi (37 US$, 5 hours to process) and caught a bus out of town. Tomorrow I try again for the border.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Day 79 - KM 42 to Na Meo

Start: KM 42, between Quan Son and Na Meo, Vietnam
End: Na Meo, Vietnam
Distance: 47 km
Time: 3'23"
Avg: 13.8 k/h
Max: 36 k/h
Total: 5117 km
Total riding days: 58
Roadkill: A big, fat rat in Hanoi. Hanoi? Yes, see below.
Riding hours: 0600 - 1005

Laos has rubber borders. I keep bouncing off them.

This time, the story is: Yes, foreigners can cross the border at Na Meo. But No, a Lao visa is not available at the border. The Vietnamese border guards were very apologetic (not that it is their fault), and are looking after my bike for me while I make a trip to Hanoi to get a Lao visa from the consulate there. They even gave me an informal 4-day visa extension, since my Vietnam visa expires tomorrow.

'Informal' means that they will let me out, but it doesn't mean that anyone else will recognise it. Which leaves me with a problem, because I can't stay in a hotel once my visa has expired (you have to show your visa at check-in). And my tent is in Na Meo, at the border with my bike. And it is quite chilly at night now. So I may have to buy a bottle of cider in a brown paper bag and sit by the lake all night.

Note to travellers: on Vietnamese buses (I took two in my visa-hunting zip from Na Meo to Hanoi), try not to sit next to women. They all, almost without exception, vomit continuously throughout the journey, into little plastic bags which they toss out of the window when full. For some reason men don't seem to be affected.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Day 78 - Mai Chau to "KM 42" (between Quan Son / Na Meo)

Start: Mai Chau, Vietnam
End: "Kilomet 42", roadside village between Quan Son and Na Meo on the road to the Vietnam - Laos border, Vietnam
Distance: 103 km
Time: 6'37"
Avg: 15.5 k/h
Max: 42.5 k/h
Total: 5070 km
Total riding days: 57
Roadkill: The skin on my left arm and hand.
Riding hours: 0940 - 1740

Another attempt at getting into Laos. I am about 45 km short of the Na Meo border. It got dark on me half way up the valley. A local shopkeeper kindly invited me to sleep and eat in his house in this village. It is a Thai-style house-on-stilts with a thatched roof and rattan-and-tarpaulin walls. He gave me a pool table to sleep on. Surprisingly comfortable.

I crashed twice today. I have never crashed before. Both times the immediate cause was a silly cow in the road, and the slightly less immediate cause was a silly bugger on my bike. Or perhaps it should be the other way around.

Anyway, after yesterday's brakeless near-end, today I had new brakes in. I suppose I was used to having to squeeze the old brakes hard to get any stopping power. Now a light touch is enough. A hard squeeze locked up the rear wheel, and on both occasions it slid, once in mud, once in a cowpat.

Afterwards, I swore at the cows. They looked blankly at me, and said moo. This made me quite angry.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Day 77 - near Moc Chau to Mai Chau

Start: village near Moc Chau, Vietnam
End: Mai Chau, Vietnam
Distance: 120 km
Time: 7'47"
Avg: 15.4 k/h
Max: 52 k/h
Total: 4968 km
Total riding days: 56
Roadkill: very, very nearly me. I should probably be dead now.
Riding hours: 0630 - 1720

Two things:

1. The road from Moc Chau to the Vietnam-Laos border (signposted to 'Cua Khao') is 32 km long, almost all uphill, and very hard work. At the top, a very polite Vietnamese border official will inform you that this border is no longer open to foreigners, and you will have to go back down again. So I am not in Laos.

2. From Moc Chau east towards Mai Chau, the road climbs for about 25 km, and then descends steeply and longly on a winding mountain road. There was near-whiteout fog and drizzle. My brakes failed. (My fault, I did not maintain them properly.) The pull of gravity down the slope outweighed any remaining friction in my brakes, and I lost control. The bike was going faster and faster, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I hit 52 km/h, my computer tells me later. One overtaking car, broken down truck, vehicle out of position, motorbike coming round a bend, landslip, roadworks, cow, old woman... anything would probably have killed me, and quite possibly them too if it was something animate that I hit. All of these things are extremely common on this road. I must have been going 3 or 4 kilometres in this condition, screaming all the way hoping that people would get out of the way.

I had both brake levers pulled right down to the handlebars, and I was still accelerating. I tried using my feet as friction brakes, scuffing the soles of my sandals on the road, but they kept catching on the road surface and being pulled backwards (nearly breaking my legs in the process).

Eventually, when the road flattened slightly, I was able to get onto the crossbar of the bike and 'run' along astride the bike, gradually taking more strain on the legs and pulling the bike up with my arms.

I stopped. But I was very, very lucky. My chances were probably worse than 50-50, given the frequency of broken-down trucks on the road (but none, by a miracle, on my runaway stretch). In retrospect I should probably have baled out and taken the cuts, bruises and breaks; they would have been less life-threatening. My bike would probably have gone over the cliff though.

Afterwards, as I stood shaking by the roadside, unhurt apart from some bruising on my thighs from stopping the bike, a man past whom I had hurtled a minute or two previously, yelling like a lunatic, came down to check that I was all right, and shook my hand. He stayed to help me adjust my brakes, too. People can be very, very kind.

Message to any other cyclists as foolish as me: do not let your brakes get to the point where they are at full-stretch to stop you in the dry. When it rains, you will not stop.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Day 76 - Son La to south of Moc Chau

Start: Son La, Vietnam
End: village, name unknown, 10km south of Moc Chau on road to Cua Khao on the Vietnam-Laos border
Distance: 133 km
Time: 7'17"
Avg: 18.2 k/h
Max: 60 k/h
Total: 4847 km
Total riding days: 55
Roadkill: none.
Riding hours: 0745 - 1720

Look at that downhill between Son La and Moc Chau. I don't think I've ever hit 60 k/h on a laden bike before.

This road must have been designed by M.C. Escher. It follows a river, upriver, for about 20 km and yet the road is consistently downhill, without ever changing much its height above the river level.

The reverse scenario, in which uphill roads follow rivers downstream, is well known and understood by cyclists, if not physicists, but I believe this example, of the magic working in the cyclist's favour, to be unique.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Day 75 - Near Tuan Giao to Son La

Start: At the pass above Tuan Giao, Vietnam
End: Son La, Son La province, Vietnam
Distance: 71 km
Time: 4'10"
Avg: 16.9 k/h
Max: 44 k/h
Total: 4714 km
Total riding days: 54
Roadkill: none. A good day for animals. Except that probably means someone else has already eaten them all.
Riding hours: 0730 - 1230

The morning's promised views were swallowed by a thick fog that covered the pass.

Some nice bread rolls half way, though, in Thuan Chau.

Pretty easy riding, with just a little pass at the end to warm up the legs.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Day 74 - Dien Bien Phu to beyond Tuan Giao

Start: Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam
End: 17 km beyond Tuan Giao, near the top of the pass on the border between Lai Chau and Son La provinces.
Distance: 99 km
Time: 6'53"
Avg: 14.3 k/h
Max: 41 k/h
Total: 4643 km
Total riding days: 53
Roadkill: The odd snake, a broken fan-belt that looked like a snake (they always do, and they always make me jump), and, unusually, a live snake too (not roadkill, I know - or not yet, anyway).
Riding hours: 0910 - 1730

An easy day, I think the double rest day helped... Planned to stay in Tuan Giao, but the only hotel was a little expensive and not very nice, so, since it was early, I bought an ice cream and headed on up what was supposed to be tomorrow's pass instead.

An 800 metre climb, but if you've got to climb, there is no nicer time to do it (no nicer time for any sort of riding, in fact) than in the late evening around sunset.

I got lucky with a camp-spot again - nothing all the way up, then just as the sun set the road flattened towards the top of the pass, and a perfect, hidden, flat and easy-to-reach camp-spot materialised.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Days 72, 73 - Dien Bien Phu

One rest day becomes two. This can easily happen.

An army museum, and a hill preserved (restored, in fact, I think, if that is the right word) in the state it was in during the battle at Dien Bien Phu. The hill has the poetic name A1.

Met Thomas and Iris, cyclists from Germany. They have been riding for 12 months; at the end of this month they are going home. I still have 12 months to go I think.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Day 71 - Lai Chau to Dien Bien Phu

Start: Lai Chau, Vietnam
End: Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam
Distance: 106 km
Time: 7'15"
Avg: 14.6 k/h
Max: 49 k/h
Total: 4545 km
Total riding days: 52
Roadkill: the road, being bulldozed and JCB'd into oblivion in a couple of places

Another long, hot, hard day. The legs are struggling.

Dien Bien Phu is the scene of the final defeat of the French in their efforts to keep hold of their empire in Indochina. I will stay here a couple of days to rest and look around.

Met a couple of Germans on a motorbike.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Day 70 - Lai Chau to Lai Chau

Start: Lai Chau (aka Tam Duong), Vietnam
End: Lai Chau, Vietnam - the other Lai Chau, this one the one that is called Lai Chau on most maps.
Distance: 109 km
Time: 6'04"
Avg: 17.9 k/h
Max: 48.5 k/h
Total: 4439 km
Total riding days: 51
Roadkill: small pretty bright green snake
Riding hours: 0910 - 1630
Hard work today. Nice tropical valley, but it is very very hot, and little shade.

More trouble at 'works, this time the chain is sagging. I had tightened the freehub too much, I think.

Another puncture! Two in the last month. This is becoming a habit.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Day 69 - Sapa to Lai Chau

Start: Sapa, Vietnam
End: Lai Chau, Vietnam - but not THE Lai Chau. There seem to be two Lai Chaus, and this is the one nearer Sapa, that is called something like Tam Duong on most maps
Distance: 75 km
Time: 4'41"
Avg: 16.1 k/h
Max: 49 k/h
Total: 4330 km
Total riding days: 50
Roadkill: a big, fat snake
Riding hours: 1330 - 1820

What a difference a freehub makes! Thank you Michael Zhao at Decathlon Shanghai for arranging that. I can now pedal and turn the wheel, which makes a big difference in terms of riding a bicycle.

I left Sapa rather late (it was starting to feel like home, had to tear myself away...), and got benighted, finishing the ride in the dark and pouring rain. In fact it rained, hard, almost all day. Luckily I had seen most of the view a week earlier, on my aborted exit from Sapa before the freehub finally kaputed.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Day 68. Sapa, Vietnam

My rather fantastic sponsors in Shanghai have sent me a new freehub!!!!!!

It is now in Hanoi, and barring train derailments, missile strikes, or other mishap, will be here in the morning.

That is news just in, hot off the wires to my email.

So just as I was getting to know and love the place, I learn that this is to be my last night in Sapa.

But then, I've said that before...

As a precaution, though, it has started raining - the heavens are weeping at my impending departure.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Day 67. Sapa, Vietnam.

A new dawn, a new day. But still Sapa.

I devote most of the day to turning out my panniers and doing a complete inventory of what I've got in them.

Preliminary findings are as follows:

1. There is a lot of junk in there.

2. Most of it I didn't even know I had.

3. Which suggests to me that some of it might not be strictly necessary.

4. Almost everything is damp.

5. Anyone care for a small Chinese umbrella (broken)?

6. Or want to trade a soggy copy of For Whom The Bell Tolls or Madame Bovary for something else for me to read while I strut and fret my life away here?

Monday, November 07, 2005

Day 66. Sapa Sapa Sapa Sapa Sapa Sapa Sapa Sap

Do you think this blog page will start to be the #1 site on Google when you search for 'Sapa'?

It can only be a matter of time.

I suppose I should do the decent thing and actually say something interesting, relevant or useful about the place. So I shall:

1. It rains a lot here.

2. Coming here may be bad for your bicycle.

3. There are many places to stay in Sapa, but #403 in the Quynh Anh Guesthouse is currently unavailable.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Day 65. You know where.

I sit in my hotel room and read For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway.

Sapa has a church, whose bell rings from time to time, so I suppose there is a connection.

I dreamt last night that I was playing rugby for the England team - something that that is about as unlikely as my ever getting to leave Sapa, on present form.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Day 64. Back in Sapa.

Start: Just over the pass in Lai Chau province, near Sapa, Vietnam
End: Sapa, Sapa, Sapa
Distance: 24 km
Time: 2'38"
Avg: 9.2 k/h
Max: 38.5 k/h
Total: 4255 km
Total riding days: 49
Roadkill: westerly progress
Riding hours: 0645 - 0940

I push back up the rest of the pass, and freewheel down into my "favourite" place in Vietnam, Sapa.

Although it is the weekend, my little guesthouse still has a place for me. Back in the same room, #403.

I have a shower and buy a kilogram of potatoes.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Day 63. Sapa - near Binh Lu - Sapa

Start: Sapa, Vietnam
End: Somewhere over the pass towards Lai Chau, west of Sapa
Distance: 53 km
Time: 4'35"
Avg: 11.6 k/h
Max: 48.5 k/h
Total: 4230 km
Total riding days: 48
Roadkill: Broken freehub, this time totally.
Riding hours: 1200 - 1730

A day of three halves.

I take a chance on the repaired freehub.

It takes me 16 km up to the pass quite happily.

And 24 km down the pass even more happily, no pedalling, no problem.

It's 3pm. I have just descended 1000 metres down a beautiful valley. I am somewhere near Binh Lu.

The road flattens out; I may have to pedal.

Round go the pedals, but the wheels: no. The pedals spin very merrily but I come to a halt. Not a grinding halt, more a wobbly one.

So half #3 of the day is something that you can do for fun with a bike, but I don't recomment it. Push it, laden with 35 kg of stuff, back up a 1000 metre pass.

I get about 2/3rds of the way up when darkness catches up with me. Then, something works out for me, the way things do sometimes, when you're on a bike. Or not on a bike, in this case. The only possible camp-spot on the whole pass appears in the mist round the next bend.

Out comes the tent, and it's a happy night under canvas for me. The bike stays outside with the frogs.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Day 62. That place beginning with S, Vietnam

Start: Victoria Hotel, Sapa, Vietnam
End: Quynh Anh Guesthouse, Sapa
Distance: 8 km
Time: 0'34"
Avg: 14.6 k/h
Max: 39.5 k/h
Total: 4177 km
Total riding days: 47
Riding hours: 1200 - 1235

My freehub has come back from Hanoi. They do not sell them there.

Well, 98% of my freehub has come back from Hanoi. It is missing one of its pawls. Pawls are little sticky-outy bits. A freehub should have 3. Now mine has 2.

On a rainier day, this might make me quite upset.

But, as it is, (a) at least this way I get to find out what a pawl is; and (b) since the thing is broken anyway, I don't really suppose it matters too much.

My days of indolence and folded down lavatory paper have come to an end; I am now slumming it at the Quynh Anh Guesthouse down the steps from the Victoria. The price tag is about 1/40th of what it costs at the bright shiny place up the hill; but then, here I have to fold my own bogroll.
Oh, the depths to which a man can sink.

I take the bike with the semi-repaired 98% of a freehub with its 2 remaining pawls and a third bodged pawl that a local engineer manages to fashion out of something he found down the back of the skirting board. Remarkably, the wheel goes round and things feel, if not quite perfect, then at least worth a shot.

Tomorrow, we will see.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Day 61. Same old Sapa, Vietnam

Still peering at your atlas trying to find this place?

Look a bit closer, it's the little town with a frustrated immobilised cyclist jumping up and down in it.

I have found an approximate grid reference for the lat'n'long inclined among you:

104 degrees East, 22 degrees North.

Altitude about 1600 metres, in case you're trying to get a 3-D fix.

My broken freehub has been sent to Hanoi, and persons unknown are scurrying around trying to find a replacement.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Day 60. Sapa, Vietnam

No freehub, no kilometres. Big spiders.

Sapa's official tourist slogan is:

'Sapa - a real destination for tourists'.

They clearly didn't get many entries in their 'Let's think up a new slogan for Sapa' competition last year.

Possibly, they didn't even get any entries. Neighbouring Laocai's tagline is the eerily familiar: 'Laocai - a real destination for tourists'.

Now who's borrowing from whom here?