Counting days again

Today is our last day in Thailand.  

We have been in Asia for 4 months and 6 days, and have cycled 3028 miles / 4874km in that time.  We are here, cheers Our Kid for the ongoing map updates :). Tomorrow, we will cycle over the border into Malaysia.  20 days later, we’ll enter Singapore.  We’ll stay for 5 nights, and then we will fly to New Zealand.  

I can no longer tell you any of the above at the drop of a hat but, given that our flights are booked and time is marching on, counting days is fast becoming a logistical necessity!

We’ve actually done precious little cycling since I last wrote.  From Siem Reap, we headed back to Bangkok by bus, still with Nixie and AJ.  The intention was to sample New Year Bangkok-style, but some of us were still too sick to make it past 10pm 😦  I am assured our visitors had a wonderful time, however!  And I also had a wonderful time, until 10pm 🙂  I even managed a glass of rather nice red wine, and being woken up by the incredible noise from the fireworks was actually a pretty special experience.  

Eating street food in Bangkok
Sampling Bangkok’s street food (and beer)
Roti time at the night market
Glass of red out of shot

Nixie and AJ headed off for some island time before returning to their sensible lives (sniff!), and we headed South to find some beaches of our own.  

Travelling in comfort on the train
Things were rather less roomy on the bus!

We’d picked Krabi as our meeting point with Marie, based on a very positive experience on our previous trip.  It’s a pleasant town with some (but not too many) tourist leanings, excellent food, and easy access to a large number of appealling tropical islands. Marie arrived without incident, we gave her a day to catch her breath and then we were off on an island hopping adventure.

Thai food initiation

I say we gave her a day….  Actually, we went off on a modest day trip to see if all the fuss about Railay beach had foundation.  Verdict:  a worthy day trip if you aren’t seeking solitude.  It is undeniably beautiful, but that was more than enough ‘following the crowds’ for these adventurers.  Apologies to anyone who is utterly sick of sunny beach photos.  I don’t blame you.  Look away now.

Railay West is justifiably popular!

Once the jetlag had passed (well, not sure we checked that, sorry Marie!) we hopped into a mini-van and headed South into Trang province.  A short speedboat ride later and were were deposited in Paradise, AKA Ko Mook.  

Beautiful beach with palm trees
Is that even real?

We hiked through the jungle to a deserted beach.  We chartered a ship (ok, small boat) and swam through a cave to a hidden Emerald Cove.  We ate, we drank, we laughed, we made new friends.  Sigh.  Can we go back?

Only 60 mozzie bites were sustained on this adventure

On our way to the cave with Gina

Oh how many attempts we had at taking this photo!!

It was pretty tough to drag ourselves away, but Ko Kradan was calling.  We were promised perfect beaches and incredible snorkelling.  And a very ‘rustic’ beach bungalow experience with added wildlife.  All promises were honoured!

Oh my
The location was worth a few bugs!

 

I was a little reticent about our decision to head to the much larger, more developed, Ko Lanta.  However, we had liked it on our previous visit but felt we hadn’t made the most of it, and it also fitted in very nicely with our itinerary.  As it turns out, it was an excellent contrast to the teeny tiny islands, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.  Our cooking course was a particular highlight, thanks again to our generous ex-colleagues for funding that one!

Not too shabby
Cocktails and large knives, what could possibly go wrong?  At least we won’t forget our names

We reluctantly dragged ourselves away from Paradise and headed back to Krabi, where we said goodbye to Marie (sob!) and mounted our trusty steeds once again.  

Four days cycling, and we’re already having a rest!!  While it’s been fine, we ARE pretty tired, it seems prudent to look after ourselves at this early stage, especially as our plans for Malaysia are somewhat mountainous.  So, we find ourselves in the small, sleepy town of Satun, with little to do other than write blogs, binge watch Grey’s Anatomy, eat excellent food and drink the last few Thai teas….sniff.  Actually, we did find a very cool market this morning, just to reassure you that we have moved!

Satun market

I fear that adding any more photos to this blog will limit its chances of ever uploading, so let’s wrap this up!   Photo fans can catch up on our Bangkok photos here:  https://www.flickr.com/gp/126636200@N07/qw80wf and, in the unlikely event that you are NOT sick of beach photos, our island hopping album is here:  https://www.flickr.com/gp/126636200@N07/N8S0j8.  Thank you to AJ, Nixie and Marie (and Ed!) for freely sharing their photos with me – I am not organised enough to remember which are yours and which are mine, so please take this as credit!

Don’t forget you can also find us on instagram and facebook (@unprofessionaladventurers) for more regular updates (some may say spamming), and we are also on Crazy Guy if any cyclists would like a bit more detail on the actual cycling part of this cycling adventure:  http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/unprofessionaladventure2017.  As ever, we love hearing news from home so please use all usual channels, or drop us an email at unprofessionaladventurers@gmail.com. 

Next time….Malaysia!  I am assured that we have a good chance of seeing wild elephants along the way, so watch this space……  

 

 

 

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About time

Before I started researching our trip, I knew precisely two things about Cambodia:

  1. It is home to a massive temple called Angkor Wat that people seem to get very excited about
  2. Blue Peter ran an appeal for its people sometime in the 80s, because some other people called the Khmer Rouge had done a lot of bad stuff.
A little research on the cycling side told me to expect horrible roads with bumpy / muddy surfaces and crazy traffic, grotty guesthouses, and scary food options.
 
As it turns out, Cambodia is a wonderful country, and we thoroughly enjoyed our 3 weeks exploring.  It’s pretty high in our ‘which country did you like best’ list, despite its lack of conventional cycling wow-factor.  So what was it that grabbed us and stole our hearts?  
 
Firstly, we have been pleasantly surprised by the roads.  We had one tricky stretch just south of Phnom Penh, where it was narrow, bumpy, busy AND under repair.  Other than that, it’s been great.  We managed a good chunk of the journey on smaller roads which is always preferable, but even once we were on Highway 6, it was fine!  Good, even!  Great surface, wide road with a decent shoulder, and just not that busy.  A cyclist’s dream!
 
Secondly, it’s actually very pretty.  It’s an extremely flat country, so we weren’t hopeful of much in the way of views.  It’s certainly true that we haven’t seen anything like the jaw-dropping scenery of Northern Thailand and Laos, but Cambodia has still been pretty easy on the eye.  Somehow we never tire of paddy fields and palm trees as far as the eye can see.  Add to that a host of appealling villages nestling within the tropical foliage, and it’s easy to like the place.
 
A cow in Cambodia
Not a bad view
Thirdly, it’s a lot more developed than at least I was expecting, meaning high standards of accommodation and an easy life as far as eating is concerned.  We only spent one night in a teeny tiny one horse town, and even there the guesthouse was pretty good – five whole dollars and the shower was warm! So, some of the challenges that have been wearing us down just haven’t existed here. If anything, we’re a bit sorry we haven’t tackled the more remote areas of the country, and are already hankering for a return!
 
Finally, it’s incredibly charming.  So many of the cool and funny things that we’ve enjoyed about SE Asia are present here, and the people have been nothing but kind, helpful and pleased to see us.  Stopping at roadside stalls and coffee shops refreshes the body and the soul, thanks to heart-warming encounters with the delightful locals. 
 
Sitting at a drink stall
Very important to refuel (with iced coffee)
Hard to describe, but Cambodia just has a nice ‘feel’ to it.  It’s under our skin for sure, and has well and truly reversed the doldrums that I spoke about in my last post.  If you’d like to see what I’m talking about, photos of our journey from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap are here:  https://www.flickr.com/gp/126636200@N07/z5MT0n
 
Visiting the temples of Angkor with Nixie and AJ was the icing on the cake.  What fun we had!  (despite my being ill for EIGHT DAYS AND COUNTING, but let’s not get bogged down in that…). I’d agonised over our itinerary, trying to strike a balance between wow factor, horrendous crowds and temple overload.  
 
So, on the afternoon of Christmas Day, we found ourselves a random tuktuk driver (who turned out to be excellent) off the street and headed over to Bayon temple (the one with the faces).  Various accounts had assured me that this very popular temple was best visited at the end of the day to avoid the hordes, and this was certainly true.  As closing time approached, things emptied out even more, leaving us to soak up the serene atmosphere of this incredible place.  Our photos are blissfully tourist-free as an added bonus!
 
Faces at Bayon temple
Are you looking at me?
On boxing day, tuktuk driver delegated to his mate (who was also excellent), and we headed straight for Ta Prohm (the one with the trees).  My obsessive research suggested ‘dawn’ was a good time to be here to escape the masses, but we settled for a more leisurely 8.30am, which proved to be a good compromise. This incredible temple is the classic Indiana Jones / Tomb Raider backdrop and did not disappoint.  The tree roots are almost liquid, dripping over the ruins (and causing havoc with the structures, no doubt!). We then headed to Banteay Kdei for an even more peaceful, evocative wander, followed by the impressive Pre Rup for a different aspect on the archaelogical park.  What a fabulous day.
 
Tree at temple
More trees at Banteay Kdei
Day 3 dawned and we stayed in bed while the crowds watched the sunrise (through dense cloud), instead heading to Angkor Wat after breakfast.  The big one.  Would it live up the the hype?  Well…..not really….not for us.  It’s beautiful when viewed from a distance, impressive due to its immense scale, and imposing when viewed up close.  But we felt it lacked the atmospheric charm of all of the others.  I also think that these things can become victims of their own hype – it is wonderful, but hard to get that excited when you’ve seen so many photos!  Finally, we headed to Preah Khan for endless, mirror-like corridors, and fewer people once again.
 
Columns Preah Khan temple
Something different at Preah Khan
A million pictures are available for your perusal here:  https://www.flickr.com/gp/126636200@N07/X89G66
 
All of this templing was punctuated with a healthy dose of food and the odd cheeky cocktail 🙂
 
Christmas lunch
Christmas dinner, albeit without roast potatoes!
And now, we are back in Bangkok!  After a certain amount of fretting in team Campbell, we decided to brave the Nattakan cross-border bus (not the ideal option for bikes).  And it was fine, in fact it was pretty great!  Such a straightforward journey with friendly staff who looked after both us and the bikes extremely well.  We’ve had great fun exploring this fantastic city once again, and showing our friends some of the things that keeps Thailand so close to our hearts (many of which are edible!)  
 
At the night market
Hitting the night market in Bangkok
It’s been something of a whirlwind, leaving us with just over six weeks until we fly to the antipodes!  Time is a strange thing indeed – just a few weeks ago, it was literally crawling by whereas now, I am starting to feel like I need to backpedal to delay our departure!  Some people are just never happy 🙂
 
Friendly reminder that we always love receiving news from home (no matter how inconsequential) so do get in touch:  unprofessionaladventurers@gmail.com.  You probably know that we are on Facebook and Instagram @unprofessionaladventurers; there’s a map of our route here; and you can follow the nitty gritty of the cycling here: http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/unprofessionaladventure2017
 
Happy New Year!  I’m under a health-related curfew but hoping to celebrate at least a little bit…..have a good one and don’t bother with resolutions, they just make you feel bad 😉
 
 
 
 

On being grateful

I’ll be honest here.  We’ve been feeling a little flat lately.   

It’s very easy to paint a rosy picture, and I know I’m especially guilty of this with my photos (although presumably you don’t actually want to see endless pictures of South East Asia’s rubbish problem?  Correct me if I’m wrong!). However, as it irritates me when others paint over the cracks and present their saccharine-sweet perfect life on the dreaded Facebook, it’s time to get a bit more real!

Life is hard

Make no mistake, we are having an incredible time.  It’s just not that much fun right at the moment.  

(Woe is us, obviously, on our extended adventure to exotic lands.  With money in the bank and a house to go back to!)

Hard to imagine how we’re coping

The fact of the matter is this.  We pretty much do the same thing day in, day out.  Yes, there is variety in the places we see, but a lot stays the same too.  We’re just a bit ‘asia-ed out’, as Ed puts it.  We are actually pretty taken with Cambodia thus far, so that is helping a little.  But the daily challenges we face, as we proceed along the extremely un-beaten track, are wearing a bit thin.  

Pretty rubbish really

Here’s the good news.  In JUST ONE WEEK, our dear friends Nicola and AJ will arrive in Siem Reap in time for Christmas!  We will spend a few days exploring Angkor Wat together, then head to Bangkok for New Year.  Woo!

It doesn’t end there either.  From Bangkok, we are heading straight to Krabi, where we’ll join Marie for some island time.  THEN we get to go to Malaysia, where we’ll head back into the mountains (which we’re really missing, despite my complaints about riding in them previously!). THEN it’s Singapore where we’re meeting Emilie for parkrun (and possibly some gossiping), Loz and Richard and family (probably for some eating), and THEN my lovely Mum and Dad, who are buying us cocktails at Raffles before we all head off to New Zealand together!  

That is probably enough change to satisfy our craving.  So the task for the next few days is to fully embrace cycling in Cambodia, as we know we’ll regret it if we don’t!  

Cambodia warrants our appreciation!

Yesterday, we rode 48 miles from Prey Veng to Kampong Cham (no, I’d never heard of them either!). It was a nice ride through pretty countryside, friendly towns, and fascinating agriculture.  There was a whopping headwind, which threatened to stop us in our tracks at various points (apparently it’s the windy season – brilliant), but I was quite impressed with the positive outlook that we both maintained, despite being a right pair of Debbie Downers at the moment.  I spent my day coming up with a list of random things that warm my heart as we cycle through this fascinating part of the world.  It’s easy to stop noticing these things, so I’m on a mission to stay in the moment, pay attention, and stop feeling sorry for myself!

  • Roadside stalls selling several varieties of fruit, some enormous, and none of which we can identify.
  • Poor old dogs with their saggy boobs and mangey coats, basking in the sun.  Not sure much neutering goes on around here…
  • Ladies in multicoloured pyjamas.  In the middle of the day.  Not always matching.  I feared we may have left this particular fashion trend in Vietnam, but fortunately not!
  • Overloaded vehicles.  A constant source of amusement, if we ignore the obvious danger factor.  It’s common to see a truck with a load which doubles its height.  Sometimes with a couple of chaps sitting ON THE TOP.
  • Flip flops.  On everyone, regardless of the manual task they may be performing.
  • Mopeds.  In Cambodia, it seems to be the norm to carry three full-grown adults (Ed muses that this is because four won’t fit).  They tow trailers, which can be large and full of 30+ school children.  They carry enormous ‘panniers’ loaded with veg, and are often additionally adorned with many carrier bags of other stuff.  You can sometimes barely see them under their load. We no longer bat an eyelid at them driving on the wrong side, pulling out without looking, or pulling u-turns in ridiculous places.  
  • The people.  We are still very popular, although the attention is somewhat less over-bearing than in Vietnam, thank goodness!  Returning all the shouts and waves can get a little tiresome (to a Debbie Downer at least), but reading another cyclist’s blog gave me a new perspective on this.  The majority of people in Cambodia (and its neighbours) are never going to get much further than the province in which they were born.  They won’t get to travel the world as we are, no matter how fascinated they might be by other cultures.  So seeing a couple of white faces in their tiny, rural village is genuinely exciting.  We are the world coming to them, and one of the few chances they will get to interact with a funny-looking foreigner, with their strange clothes and weird ways.  So we should give them their chance to ogle, even laugh!
Obviously the moped is designed to pull massive trailers
Ed also pointed out that we have seen plenty of people living in utter poverty.  Lots of kids clearly aren’t at school, and we met a teenage boy today who apparently couldn’t read.  So, whether we’re enjoying ourselves or not, we have a whole lot to be grateful for.
 
I am told it’s too long since I gave you an update on our stats, so here you go! Thus far, we have cycled 4292.6km / 2667.3 miles, and we are now in our fourth country.  We’ve now been away for just over 3 months, or just under 14 weeks.  I’m not going to calculate our average mileage as it will sound a lot less impressive than the total 😉
 
As usual, I have a new photo album for you, with the first section of our Cambodian adventure:https://www.flickr.com/gp/126636200@N07/E86vD3
 
And that is all for now!  Next stop Christmas….have a good one if I don’t manage to write before The Big Day….!  We’ll likely be exploring Angkor Wat, but I expect we’ll manage to find some good food and a few drinks to celebrate at least a little bit 🙂
 
This blog is dedicated to Auntie Carol, who loved following our adventures.

Sparkly cross stitch clocks are a thing in Cambodia. Who knew.


 
 
 
 
 

Taking the rough with the smooth

Loyal followers may note that I have done a fair bit of complaining about the weather of late.  If I recall correctly, last time I put fingers to keyboard, it was persisting it down and forecast to continue for the forseeable future.  Grumbling aside (it IS the wet season after all), we weren’t about to let a bit of rain intefere with our adventure, so packed up our panniers and headed South as planned.

It rained.  And rained.  And rained some more.  Holed up in our cozy hotel in the pleasant but unremarkable town of Tam Ky, a message from my Mum informed me that the rain in Vietnam had made it onto the BBC.  This sounded serious!  

We ummed and ahhed – what to do, what to do.  We basically had 2 options:

  1. Continue south and catch the train from Quy Nhon as planned, with the bail out option of catching a train at the next big town of Quang Ngai instead.  
  2. Backtrack to Danang and catch the train from there.
The slight snag with option 1 was that we did not know, and could not find out, if it was possible to transport our bikes on the train from Quang Ngai.  Bikes go separately here, requiring a separate transportation company.  So the bail out might not actually exist.  While we don’t mind cycling in the rain (much) we didn’t relish the prospect of being pushed onto Highway 1, for several days, should the backroads be flooded.  
 
Aside from the frustration of backtracking, the only snag with option 2 was that we really didn’t enjoy riding through Danang the first time.  A quick bit of google maps jiggery-pokery told us that we were, in fact, precisely 66km from both Quang Ngai and Danang.  The safe, guaranteed option seemed like a no-brainer, so we about-turned and pointed the bikes North for the first time in a while.  As we now had some extra days in hand, we decided to spend a couple more nights in lovely Hoi An, which was a treat indeed.  It still rained, of course, but some £1 plastic ponchos made things a lot more bearable….  The ride back to Danang wasn’t too bad either.  
 
Motorbike riding through flood water
Flood, what flood?

Painted coracles and palm trees
Riding back to Danang via a different route
 So now we find ourselves in the Mekong Delta, after a loooong train journey, a couple of days in Ho Chi Minh City, and a few (hot) days riding.  It’s flipping boiling (and is currently MONSOONING it down!) but I’m not complaining about the weather any more.  Instead, I turn my attention to Vietnam’s roads.
 
I’m not talking about the traffic.  That is one thing – Ho Chi Minh is infamous for the sheer number of mopeds and the complete impossibility of trying to cross the road as a pedestrian.  But we are kind of used to Vietnam traffic now.  We eased ourselves in via a few large towns and small cities, and it’s just not as aggressive as the buses and trucks in Laos.  Lots of beeping, but it’s more to say ‘I’m here’ than ‘get out of my way’, and is actually pretty civilised. Once you’ve figured out how to go with the flow (ie embedded yourself in a pack of mopeds at every set of traffic lights!) it isn’t too bad.  Just don’t look behind you 😉
 
But.  The roads are SO BUMPY.  Even when there’s smooth tarmac, it’s bumpy.  Even a fairly major road may be very bumpy, with long unsealed sections where they have simply dumped a load of rocks in the potholes and wash-outs and ‘bashed them down a bit’. Grrr! A few sections of said bumps, plus an onslaught of noisy traffic and noisier roadside building sights, is enough to reduce even the most mild-mannerd of cycle tourists to a rage-filled monster who must be taken for a calming iced coffee as a matter of urgency.  
 
Drinking coffee in a hammock
Admit it, you thought I was talking about Ed didn’t you?
 We’ve also been finding some of the sights from the road rather upsetting over the last few days.  Clearly we’ve seen lots of things in Asia that do not quite come up to Western animal welfare standards (although don’t get me started on those), but usually we remind ourselves ‘it’s different here’ and move on.  Caged wild birds (egrets!) however, was a step too far.  The way some of them were being kept too….I will spare you the details. A black mark for this country for sure.
 
Our experience of Vietnam has been characterised by higher highs and lower lows that we’ve experienced in either Thailand or Laos.  But even taking the rough with the smooth, and there is plenty of both on a daily basis, it is just a wonderful place.  It doesn’t have the classic ingredients for a perfect cycle touring destination (smooth quiet roads and consistently spectacular scenery) but travelling by bike allows us to experience so much along the way, usually unplanned, and usually involving the ever-intriguing locals.  We get so much from the journeys, we often don’t feel too much like doing anything when we arrive at the destination!
 
On a small ferry
We love ferries
 Today, however, we put our hands in our pockets and did the ‘tourist thing’ for the first time in a while.  We hired a boat and a driver (Grandma, I think, accompanied by her 10 year old grandson to do the translating) and headed off to see Cai Rang floating market – a ‘must do’ on any Vietnam itinerary and becoming even more so with the increasing prevalence of bridges threatening the riverine way of life.  We rose at 4.30 and were collected by men on MOTORBIKES – I literally couldn’t stop grinning!  The boat trip to the market itself was wonderful, and we also visited a noodle workshop which was utterly fascinating and a far cry from my ‘tourist trap’ expectations.  We were back in town again by 8.30, with the whole day ahead of us!  Normal service has resumed, and we are doing very little once again.
 
Boat selling watermelons
 
Selling noodles at the floating market
 
Floating market boats
 
It’s 3rd December which means we have 5 days before we must leave Vietnam.  If all goes to plan, we have 3 days’ cycling to our intended border crossing at Ha Tien.  Then the Cambodian adventure begins!
 
I did add a few more pics to our ‘down the coast’ album, check them out if you’d like to see more of Hoi An old city and Danang:  https://www.flickr.com/gp/126636200@N07/gU501t
 
 
And one more to leave you with 🙂
 
Selfie at the hairdresser
A £1.30 haircut certainly counts as an experience!
 
 

Nice to meet you

Vietnam is quite a character.  It’s like that friend – great fun to go to the pub with, always joking and teasing, sometimes to the point of tedium. That person who treads the line between acceptable and unacceptable, and definitely isn’t the friend your Mum let you go to the park with because they were ‘sensible’.  Yet underneath the colourful exterior, they are incredibly loyal, kind and warm-hearted, and will do anything for you.  Vietnam is all of these things.

Exceptionally sweet staff in hotels and coffee shops, who might not speak much or any English but still want to interact, and bend over backwards to help us.  ‘Nice to meet you’ they say, as you arrive.  Old ladies in plastic-bag waterproofs and trademark conical hats rubbing shoulders with immaculate, fashionable young people. Women labourers, chopping logs or harvesting vegetables by the side of the road, shouting ‘helloooOOOOooo’ and literally CACKLING with laughter when we respond. Grungy local restaurants, with tiny plastic chairs and rubbish on the floor, dishing up mouth-watering meals for less than the cost of a snickers.  Cows lying on the highway.  Cockerels crowing in the morning (no change there).  A thousand (million?) mopeds buzzing around, weaving inbetween those strange white people wobbling on their bicycles.  And the incessant honking from every single motorised vehicle.  I would honk if I could!

Every day we see something that surprises us.  Overloaded mopeds were common in Thailand and Laos as well, but Vietnam seems to take things to new levels.  Lots of passengers goes without saying.  It’s also perfectly acceptable to have your pillion passenger hold onto your cargo, be that a TV, a bicycle or a wheelie bin (admittedly, that was being dragged).  We’ve seen a washing machine.  5 metre-long metal poles over the rider’s shoulder.  Even longer trailers. 50 flapping ducks.  MANY piglets in a cage on the back.  A FULL SIZE PIG.  It’s a constant source of incredulity and entertainment, although we do fear for their safety of course!

Since my last post, we’ve spent a day chilling by the pretty river and beach in Dong Hoi, soaked up the hustle and bustle of go-ahead Hue, cycled the Hai Van pass (of Top Gear fame – it rained a lot) and admired the impossibly pretty streets of Hoi An.  Lots of other nice cycling inbetween as well of course!  A common thread holds all of this together, and that is food 🙂  One of my very favourite things about Vietnam is the surprising abundance of vegetarian restaurants…..and now they’re MUCH easier to find as, given their use of the roman script, we can find them on google maps!  Brilliant.

Menu in Vietnamese
No problem if you can’t read with menu when it’s all vegetarian!

Let’s start with breakfast.  If you’re feeling adventurous, you might ‘go local’ and grab yourself some classic pho noodles:

Eating pho noodles

If you’re somewhere on the tourist-beaten track, you might go for muesli or pancakes, enhanced with fabulous local fruit:

Breakfast

Of course, at some point you’ll need a coffee.  Can we recommend the ca phe sua, coffee with milk.  Condensed of course, for that double caffeine-sugar hit:

Vietnamese coffee. Always served with tea.

The day starts early here so, if you find yourself feeling a little peckish mid-morning, there’s always the banh mi sandwich:

Eating a Vietnamese sandwich

So many lunch options, so little time!!  How about a steam pot?  Also known as steamboat / hotpot / shabu shabu / fondue in various parts of the world, this interactive dish is not only delicious but also easy to order – always a bonus when the menu is somewhat baffling:

Eating and cooking hotpot at the table

Mid-afternoon, you might find a cake if you’re somewhere catering to westerners but failing that, there are plenty of milky, sugary drinks to choose from.  Personally, I’m becoming rather partial to the matcha latte – also available iced, but the hot version is particularly appealling in the wet season!

Matcha latte

Before you know it, your stomach’s grumbling again and it’s time to think about dinner!  Why not order a selection of dishes and share?  Beer is the most important element of course – fresh ‘bia hoi’ if you can find it but, if not, Saigon or Huda will do!

Eating a selection of Vietnamese dishes

Tasty indeed.  Admittedly, this is all somewhat offset by our cycling diet of oreos, haribo and crisps, but there you go!

If you’d like to peruse our photos from Vietnam so far, I have pulled them together in two new flickr albums:

Border to Phong Nha: https://www.flickr.com/gp/126636200@N07/5d8Qv7

Dong Hoi to Hoi An: https://www.flickr.com/gp/126636200@N07/xBq753

Enjoy!  And please wish us luck with the weather – apparently it’s going to rain solidly for the next 4-10 days, depending on who you believe…..

Two people in raincoats
Did I mention it was wet…..

 

 

 

In at the deep end

Well, we wanted different, and that’s exactly what we got!  

You may remember from a previous post that we’d had several plan changes regarding our route through Laos.  This also affected our entry point into Vietnam.  I wasn’t really concerned about this – in fact, I’d given it very little thought which is quite unusual  😉  Had I engaged brain, I may have wondered how we would cope being plunged straight into a non-touristy area of a brand new country.  I would probably have worried about it a little bit.  Instead, I was completely oblivious to the challenges that lay ahead!

The border crossing itself was a very strange experience.  The Lao side was pretty much in line with our experience of Laos – a bit random and untidy, and lots of people in the border control office were having some sort of banquet, but everything worked smoothly albeit not very quickly.  Once through, we had to cross a considerable chunk of no-man’s land.  The dense fog probably didn’t help things, but the whole area was somewhat Hollywood post-apocalyptic: abandoned buildings, rubbish everywhere, stray dogs, and no one to tell us where to go.  It was a relief to eventually find the border control, although I do find that quantity of men in uniforms a little bit intimidating!  I felt a lot better when important man no.1 seemed more interested in my waterproof jacket than causing us any grief, and it wasn’t long before our visas were accepted, our passports stamped and we were officially in Vietnam!

The weather went from bad to worse, with fog becoming rain, and visibility down to a few metres.  The road itself was in a terrible state – not what we expected from a major route between Vietnam and Laos.  The saving grace was the lack of traffic, and we enjoyed our first ride in the new territory, despite ending up freezing cold (a strange sensation indeed!)  We happened upon a friendly restaurant for lunch, where the English-speaking lady understood the concept of really not wanting meat in our food, and produced a delicious fried rice to sustain us until Pho Chau.

Road and bikes
Rainy day across the border

Eating fried rice
First lunch = success

Things continued to go well, as we checked in to a very nice hotel (for the princely sum of £8, including an actual BATH) and were invited out for dinner by the friendly receptionist who was desperate to practise his English.  A very pleasant (and delicious) evening followed, and it was a real treat to get to know a bit more about what life is really like in Vietnam.  So far so good!

And then we struck out on our own.  

And then we learnt what it’s REALLY like to be a stranger!

The Vietnamese couldn’t be more different from both the Thais and the Lao.  Gone is the reserve and (occasional) disinterest.  You might be forgiven for thinking that the people we encountered have never actually seen a white person before which, I am sure, is not the case.  People shouting hello is one thing – that’s easy!  We can shout and wave. Being followed by schoolkids on bikes or scooters is also fine…..until they won’t leave you alone.  Our third day in the country, and our blossoming love was all but extinguished by two teenage girls.  It sounds so stupid, but it was like being bullied at school!  Continually overtaking us then letting us overtake, riding next to us, following us.  Clearly mocking and laughing at us.  Fine…for a while.  But it took a long time for them to lose interest – probably not as long as it felt, but long enough!

Shortly after this encounter, we arrived in a very small town called Dong Le.  Hungry and drained from the aforementioned encounter, we weren’t best placed to cope with the attention we received.  Looking back, no one was anything but friendly and interested.  The lady from whom we’d bought our lunch looked like we’d literally made her day!  But it was one of those times when we’d have preferred to blend into the background, just to be left alone.  Instead, everyone wanted to talk to us, and one individual even followed us between shops to maximise staring time.

Fortunately, our hotel room was pleasant enough for us to hide away for the rest of the day!  We couldn’t even face going out for dinner (given the additional problem of communicating well enough to actually order something suitable) so Ed fired up the stove on the hotel balcony, and we dined on instant noodles!  Never have they tasted so good 🙂

We are now in Phong Nha, which is firmly on the tourist trail.  I realise that I have been slightly snooty about similar destinations in the past, but I take it all back!  I couldn’t be happier to be here.  Everything is easy, everyone is kind, and (most of the time) we understand exactly what is going on. The scenery is downright incredible, and the food is pretty good too!  It is funny that this is the only Vietnam that most people see, although to be fair, it’s pretty great.

Eating muffin, drinking beer
Cake me up. And the beer’s cold!

As it’s still early days, the differences between Vietnam and Laos are still very apparent:

  • The weather.  Grey skies have been the norm, along with fog, and DRIZZLE. What is this, the Lake District?!
  • The people, as mentioned above.  A few km and they have all had a complete personality change.  No shrinking violets here, that’s for sure!
  • The people again.  In this touristy town, everyone is ridiculously NICE – we experienced a fair amount of disinterest in Laos – in Phong Nha they are nothing short of delightful.
  • The buildings.  Generally more solid and more ‘western’ in style (some sort of indicator of average wealth I’m sure, but that’s not all there is behind it).
  • The hotels.  They’re just better (so far at least!). Less run down and cleaner, and not a lumpy bed in sight.
  • The bathrooms.  THEY HAVE HOT TAPS!  And no more of those crappy (death trap) electric showers – we now get our very own hot water tank in the bathroom.  AND I’ve yet to see a squat toilet, but I haven’t been in a petrol station loo so there’s still time.
  • The bathrooms again.  Not all of the sinks run directly onto the floor now….although the bath (see above) certainly did, which nearly caused a flood.
  • The traffic.  Let me just say HHHHOOOOOOONNNKKKKK!!!!  HONK HONK HONK I AM COMING THROUGH!  Large or small, the noisiest wins.  We thought it was bad in Laos – that was nothing.  And now mopeds really see no need to drive on the correct side of the road.
  • The mopeds….are possibly even MORE numerous.
  • The prices.  The food and beer is much cheaper, yay!
However, many things are comfortingly similar:
  • There are still cows wandering (or sleeping on) the streets, including Highway 1. 
  • There are still random dogs all over the place, although they are less mangy than in Laos.  Some are very angry though, eek!  Maybe it’s because they fear they may be someone’s dinner?? 
  • There’s still a fair amount of rubbish, which is sad.
  • They are still building EVERYWHERE, although more houses than petrol stations, phew.
  • There are plenty of elephant trousers to be seen when in the presence of other tourists 😉
Foggy road with moped and cow
Moo
 
And that is more than enough of my rambling 🙂
Link to the last Laos photo album is here: https://www.flickr.com/gp/126636200@N07/0H92k2
First Vietnam album is a work in progress!  Some photos of our incredible day in Phong Nha national park are below to tide you over.
Next time I post, we should have seen the sea for the first time in far too long 🙂
 
Phong Nha national park
 
Phong Nha national park
Swimming in waterfall
Water buffalo wallowing
Phong Nha national park
Leaving Phong Nha national park

Back into the good stuff

I’ll be honest – we’ve been experiencing something of a Laos lull since I last wrote.  Interesting how your perspective on a country can change so vastly once you explore a few more corners!  384 kilometres of flat, dusty, bumpy roads with considerably more traffic that we’re used to.  The wow-factor scenery has been scarce, and villages have lost their charm partly due to the ever-increasing quantity of litter, and the number of deserted building sites.  Does Laos really need ANOTHER petrol station?? And it’s very nice that you have some money, but surely you can find a better use for it than that ostentatious monstrosity??  (Bah humbug!)  It’s not all doom though, obviously.  Still much better than being at work  😉

Huge building under construction
Excuse me while I build my PALACE

From Vang Vieng, we headed south on the increasingly busy route 13, and didn’t hesitate to make a detour to explore the huge, artificial lake that takes up a good chunk of the region.  This did involve a good 5km on dirt….which came as a nasty shock, especially at the end of a 100km day.  I’d read so many accounts of people riding this way, and yet no one had mentioned it?  Obviously this made me very grumpy 😉 but all was forgiven the next day, when we finally made it to the beautiful Nam Ngum lake.  It looks like the sea!!  We persuaded a reluctant cafe to provide us with an instant coffee, and sat there for a while, taking it all in.  Not quite Devon, but not bad at all.

Cyclist on a dirt road
The face says it all

Restaurant overlooking a huge lake
Have we been teleported to the med?

We dragged ourselves away and enjoyed a significant stretch on quiet road with forested hills all around. And then we were back on the 13 with the traffic and the dust…..oh take me back to Northern Laos!!  We pushed on right to the outskirts of Vientiane, where we ‘glamped’ for the night in a spacious bell tent.  The place was a bit random (something of a building site and very disorganised) but the welcome was friendly, the food good and the beer cheap.  Our spirits lifted a little…..until we had to ride into Vientiane the following morning, but I won’t dwell on that to avoid sounding like a right old whingebag 😉

Inside a bell tent
Happy glamper

We consoled ourselves by eating our way around Vientiane for a couple of days.  It’s a lovely spot with beautiful colonial buildings and temples, and a long stretch of Mekong waterfront.  I even managed a (short, slow) run!  We also had another ‘blind date’ with a cyclist – Chris (from Somerset!) – Ed laughs at how excited I am when we meet other cyclists, but it feels like such a treat :). Chris and his wife Laura cycled the Pamir highway before heading to Vietnam and Laos…many stories were shared over the course of a thoroughly lovely evening. 

Bikes in front of ornate arch
On the way into Vientiane

Eating curry
Mmmm cuzza!

And then it was time to hit route 13 once again.  Busy, dusty, flat, boring…..  A couple of non-descript days, until we passed through a little down called Pak Kading and crossed a dramatic bridge over its beautiful, wide river….and hit the wind.  So sudden, yet so strong!  We persevered for a while, but there was no let up.  We could barely cycle without being blown off the road.  We saw many buildings in the midst of losing their corrugated iron roofs – presumably it wouldn’t be ideal to come into contact with a piece flying across the road!   There was nothing to do but seek solace in the next town.

And that is how we ended up in Phonsi.  There isn’t much to Phonsi.  Our guesthouse was the most basic we’ve stayed in yet; a windowless box with a cold shower and bucket-flush squat toilet, yet exceptionally clean for this part of the world. We managed to find a restaurant for lunch, and then we hunkered down and waited.  Don’t tell Ed, but I actually quite enjoyed this mini-adventure.

It was still pretty windy the next day but, as the gusts were less violent and the road less busy, we set off once again.  And we were glad we did, as the wind eased dramatically within 10km.  Very weird!  We’d been thinking we must be feeling the edge of typhoon Damrey, which has certainly been battering poor Vietnam.  But now I’m not so sure!  Oh for a weather forecast that actually means anything in this part of the world…..

It’s actually only 9 days since we left the dramatic scenery behind at Vang Vieng, but our transition onto route 8 today has been oh so welcome.  The mountains are back, and I’m not even complaining (much!). Today’s ride was an absolute feast for the eyes, and our westerner-friendly guesthouse feels like an absolute palace after several days of tiny, characterless boxes.  Although the other guests are all rather young 😉 Tomorrow we’re going to explore a (reportedly amazing) cave, and then it’s full steam ahead to Vietnam.  Visas start on Thursday!

Cyclist heading into the hills
And breathe. That’s more like it!

Limestone forest
Amazing limestone forest

For the non-facebookers, here’s the link to the latest album which covers the journey to Vientiane:  https://www.flickr.com/gp/126636200@N07/A572x7 

Next post will be from a different country!  My mind is slightly blown by these land borders, I clearly haven’t spent enough time in wonderful Europe….sniff.  When we crossed into Laos, Ed kept saying ‘how different can it be?!’  Answer – very!  I can’t even imagine what Vietnam has in store for us.