After an extended stay in Hanoi due to Ellie getting a cold in time for Christmas and then giving it to me, it was almost 2012 before we left Vietnam's historical capital for the quiet roads of the Red River delta. By New Year's Eve we had made it to Ninh Binh but the city had little enthusiasm for any celebrations for the Gregorian New Year and was saving itself for the Tet festival later this month. Despite a valiant effort we were back home in bed and lights out before the New Year arrived.
Bun cha in Hanoi
From Ninh Binh our westerly route traversed karst peaks before leaving the flat coastal plain and climbing into the hills to Cuc Phuong national park. On our map of Southeast Asia the mountains ripple northwestwards, all the way to the Himilayas. Cuc Phuong is an island of tranquility and respect for furry things and we spent a day visiting the endangered primates and turtle conservation centres before pedaling and walking around the park. By night we camped near the entrance and woke each morning to the siren-like howls of the gibbons waking up in the rescue centre. On our second morning I climbed out of the tent and into the fetid pit latrine that is being slowly reclaimed by the forest and conducted the morning's ablutions only to discover some internal bleeding. Alarmed and confident that my days were numbered as the rare tropical disease that I'd contracted was going to dissolve my organs, it was decided that a trip back to Hanoi's medical facilities was a good idea before continuing our journey into the remoter corners of Laos. Leaving our bikes and gear with the staff at the park, we bussed it back to Hanoi, where a French-accented doctor diagnosed a large internal hemorrhoid as the culprit and explained that many a foreigner's digestive tract succumbs to the fibre-less white rice diet.
Getting back to our bikes was a test of will against the Vietnamese public transport systems. Our bus ride proceeding smoothly but we were foiled at the last hurdle when a pair of motorbike taxi highwaymen tried to swindle us before abandoning us by the roadside several kilometres from the park's entrance. Lots of shouting and loss of face all-round saw us back on the bikes and dropped to the entrance, both of us delighted to see our bikes again. Such incidents are unfortunately very common in Vietnam with travellers frequently being overcharged obscene amounts as well as being threatened or actually evicted from the bus or motorbike unless a substantial sum is paid. The following morning after the gibbons told us it was time to pack our tent and head off into the cold drizzle we chatted with a German lady who quite matter-of-factly told us how she had gotten lost in the forest three days previously whilst out for a short walk and spent two nights surviving on water from leaves and her own urine (although this is a diuretic in case you want to try this at home) before eventually finding her way back to a trail.
Three days riding brought us up to the remote and quiet border crossing at Na Meo, during which time our faith was once again restored in humanity by the friendly locals we met along the way. Our days were still loud however, with the ear-splitting horns a feature of every moving vehicle, and even the children's shrieks of hello seemed disproportionately loud to their small bodies. After months of Sino-Vietnamese traffic, we crossed into tranquil Laos and spent our first day riding steep hills and along valleys with dried-out paddy fields surrounding bucolic villages while people smiled and said sabaidee to us amidst the background noise of ducklings, chickens and piglets.
On the Ho Chi Minh Highway: drying cassava
At Cuc Phuong rescue centre
Vieng Xai was our first stop in the land of a million elephants (although only two thousand have survived). A visit to the communist Pathet Lao's base in the limestone cliffs provided a memorable introduction to Laos. The revolutionaries had sheltered here during the nine year bombardment that began in the early 60s when the US Air Force and it's CIA owned private company Air America waged an aerial war in Laos that earned the country the sad statistic of being the most bombed country in the world per capita, with over 2 million tons of munitions being dropped during the covert campaign. The terrible legacy of the war lives on in the form of unexploded ordnance, particularly cluster bombs, that has claimed 12,000 casualties since 1973 in Laos.
Another hill or two and we reached the provincial capital of Sam Neua yesterday, still shrouded by a cold grey sky that has hung over us for the past several weeks and daytime temperatures only barely making it into the double digits at times. The local police volleyball team were celebrating a recent victory with Beer Lao and grilled goat yesterday evening at a bamboo shack and we were invited to join the party, while today involved washing clothes and trawling the market for supplies for our onward journey.
NoodlesSam Neua, Laos
Pedaled: 55,354 km