Monday, 24 January 2011

Week 12 Hanoi to Tra Vinh 122kms cycled

Highlights: Local’s prices, tasty coconut sweets, fruit shakes, some quiet roads
Low blows: Bad chest and throat from really dusty road
Music of the week: Spiral Staircase – Kings of Leon

Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City by plane
Boxed up the bike and got taxi to airport at 10. Only had 1 carry on bag so bloke just accepted the bike without even weighing it – I reakoned the box was about 25kgs with all my crap in it, so saved me excess baggage! Nice enough flight, clouds started to clear halfway down the country. Bike came through on conveyor. Luckily taxi Id booked was a big SUV so bike slotted in easy, although expensive for the 12kms into town (12 USD). Woman Id spoke to earlier had said Id got a booking at Madam Cucs Hotel, but it turned out to be like a holding pen with them farming out all the excess farang to nearby hotels. Room not that great, would’ve walked but have the bike box. Went for a wander in search a new place to stay and later for Bia Hoi, Farang area will be like Kao San Rd soon enough, a lot busier than before. Had aircon on at 25 degrees in night which usually makes me feel really cold, but it didn’t feel that bad at all now Im conditioned for silly cold temps.

Bike in a box

Moved hotels and got a well lit spot on a roof away from noise for $10. Put laundry in for a machine wash as very skanky. Wanted to visit the chicken and duck street Id seen last time but since bird flu all poultry was strictly controlled so that had now gone. Went for wander up to nearby mkt, only clothes and tat. Ate some food there then picked up bike from hotel and had a spin around town.
Went to botanical gdns/zoo which was more zoo than anything else, 2 white tigers most impressive and very frisky as looking out for keeper near feeding time. One kept pacing up and down behind the massive glass window and then running and jumping into pool and climbing out inches away from my face. Vietnamese couple next to me very jittery. Otters entertaining as usual, but a gang of blokes were taunting them with a plastic bag of sugar cane juice which they eventually lobbed in and of course the otters ripped it apart and ate most of the plastic bag. Found a warden to tell her what happened then she dressed down the bloke for being stupid.  Drank bia hoi at night at a place just round corner from new gh. Really enjoyed the sun and warm weather today.

Mobile aquatic shop

Inside an old temple

Government poster

Bikes as far as the eye can see - rush hour in Ho Chi Minh city

Hired a motorbike for $6 and went to Chu Chi Tunnels 60kms away. 40kms of ride along very busy roads. You’re supposed to stay in a lane separated from cars/trucks by concrete bollards but I kept nipping in and out to get round traffic and nearly got nabbed by police a few times. Stopped off and found a bakery for 2 fresh cheese baguettes as beer from last night kicking in. Later stopped for coffee and gave a lift to a bloke up the road.

Eventually got to Cu Chi. Was instructed to join a group of people and had an interesting tour around tunnels which turned out to be a group tour from HCM. Man traps the most interesting with various methods to spike a soldier in the field, Tunnels were built on 3 levels. There was also a shooting range which was very VERY loud. A scots bloke I chatted with had a go on an M60. Cant imagine how anyones ears withstand firefights as deafening 20 meters away. $1 a bullet so good money to be made here by military. Last bit of tour was through a 100m stretch of tunnel which was cramped and hard on the knees, these tunnels had been widened for westerners too. Drove back and busy mad traffic for last 20kms into HCM. Could ride in it and enjoyed the novelty but would be a drag to do every day.

A sniffer dog trap. The grass surface would be sprinkled with fish sauce to attract the dog. When the dog stood on the door it would spin round and the dog would fall into hole onto the spikes. This is how kebabs were invented.

Looking down onto small alleys around my guesthouse

Thick, rocket fuel coffee and fresh green tea to clear the palate

HCM to Go Cong Dong 66km
Pho is the most economical thing to eat around here and had a coffee in alleyway opposite gh. Set off 9:30. Girl from gh had written me a 3 phase instruction card to help me get there as she came from the place I was going to. Started down main avenue which actually had a big bike lane, although this ended after a few blocks. Only a couple of blocks more, then up over a bridge and straight. Stopped off shortly afterwards in a petrol station to check. All the girls that worked there said I should go back the other way. Found some older blokes in same place and they confirmed I was going the right way, always need to find someone who looks like they know their area. After that pretty boring straight bumpy road and being prepared for resurfacing so clouds of just dust and gravel thrown up by the regular buses and trucks that plied this route. Traffic thinned later on, but still a lot of dust. Ate lunch at roadside place, had a plate of rice, plate of fish, plate of veg, a bowl of soup and a big bottle of water – all for 27000. Local prices, at last! Everyone really friendly too, lots of schoolkids saying hello, girls all dressed in beautiful flowing white silk gowns (Ao Dias).
Arrived at ferry boat at 1:30 ish and boarded after a short wait. 1000 dong fare. Group of motorbike drivers having a heated argument because one of them had cut the other up, which must have been pretty drastic as that type of maneuver is usually standard here. A bloke came and split it up.
Once off ferry only another 15km along a really dusty road. Last 5kms on smooth tarmac hurrah! Did an 8km stretch to the place I thought I wanted to be in, but turns out to be just a small town with no ghs. The main town I wanted (as named incorrectly on my map) was the one Id just come through so had a glass of sugarcane juice and back up the rioad. Lush verdant green rice paddies on eitherside of road, several small bridges going over waterways lined with rattan and coconut trees.
Only places to stay in the town were actually on the arteries leading into town and after asking was taken by a lad in a motorbike shop 2kms out of town to a Karaoke/massage hotel. Room 70000 dong and fine. Interesting that the top 2 floors of the hotel had been turned into a swifts loft (nests used for birds nest soup) so the walls had small circular holes in and birdsong came from loud speakers on the roof, swifts flitted in and out. This might explain why theres a lack of hotels in town too as several buildings right in the town had been sealed up to allow only the swifts as guests.
Had a spin around town, which was a pleasant functioning town. Small orange and bonsai trees for sale as gifts for Tet holiday. Had dinner in a small place, ordered several plates, one which looked like an omelet with meat in but turned out to be very sour and salty, so they changed it for a quiche thing fo me. Had meat stuffed gourd soup, quiche thing, fish in bamboo, veg and rice. 20000.  As soon as you’re off this tourist conveyor belt things get to how they should be!
Went in search of beer. Only 1 scruffy bar in the town which only had little bottles of Heineken for 19000. No Ta. Tried another shop that wanted to sell small cans of summat for 15000, pah. Ended up sat in a wholesale beer shop drinking beer with free rice whisky chasers and snacks with the owner. Chatted with him for a few hours while the mosquitos nibbled me. Funny thin tube like things that look like grass seed when they are biting you-  stick out straight in a very thin line. Their dog in hot pursuit of a big rat running in and out of the stacked crates of beer.

Go Cong Dong to Ben Tre 56km
Small pray mantis sat on wall as I left my room. Had bf in same resto as last night Pho and coffee and super cheap again. Annoying to know that these are the right prices and everyone else overcharges. Quite a busy road to My Tho and dusty in places too. My chest was hurting from yesterday so I put bandanna on today for bad bits. Maybe that’s one of reasons people cough and hack up so much is cos of dust (and smoking).
Green rice fields either side of road, gravestones in the fields and same crappy concrete houses you get in Laos but stylish windows, paintjobs and finishing to houses make them look good. Stopped off for sugar cane juice. Had 2 glasses of rather posh stuff with a bit of pinapple in it, a scoop of creamy froth and a dash of roast peanuts on the top. Also had some bananas and a stickyrice thing wrapped around a grilled banana. Very nice.
Continued on to My Tho, big city next to river. Immediately accosted by touts on motorbikes for boats trips/rooms. Had a look on my own at a few places, but pretty grotty and not worth the money, also not much to see here as far as I can tell, just sprawl, although atmospheric next to river. Had lunch in another normal priced place and then decided to carry on to Ben Tre.
Went over huge bridge, the island spreading out in front. The road was a big busy road and not the coconut fringed backroad Id imagined.  Arrived in Ben Tre 2:30ish, had a look at some gh’s once Id got my bearings and stayed in a government run place which is quite nice. 160k for ac room inc bf. Rooms get cheaper as you go up each floor, but are same inside. This towns action is actually next to riverside, so wandered along the lanes full of shops selling, fruit, hardware, clothes, food, flowers, etc etc and popped across river on small bridge for a bit aswell. Lots of boats going up and down loaded with coconuts, loads being unloded from boats into the back of waiting vans and one shop taking the remnants of the husks off before storing them inside. A new road bridge is being constructed too, although one is visible upstream – looks like theyre getting the area connected. Went for a spin on bike later too. Had Pho for tea and took a baguette back to room for later which had pate, pork, strips of fat, and sausage meat in it. Took the non-desirable items out.. Some function going on in dining room with a lot of drunk people going for it on karaoke.
Nice spot for a burial

Big bridge over the Mekong river

Sorting coconuts

Busy bridge in Ben Tre

Ben Tre  
Hacking up a lot of phlem and got sore throat today. Also mozzy bites from other night really itchy.Went over bridge and cycled along narrow lanes – huge rattan plants, coconut trees, fruit trees, small canals. People selling fruit from their gardens. A few grassroots factories making something from coconuts, having big vats with coconut meat in. Hundreds of plastic trays being washed and stacked to dry outside so I presume they will make some kind of paste and put it in tray to dry? Passed an artist carving  a fish out of a huge log. Passed some young boys on bicycles and they wanted a race so we raced for a bit - they went pretty fast to say no gears on their bikes. Eventually came round in a circle and realized I was back across from the town, only 11km later! Quite sticky so back to gh, a wedding reception going on downstairs. Later went to buy some local sweets later made from coconut and other fruits, good energy for riding! Then went for a haircut. The lady who ran the place seemed delighted to have me there and I ended up getting 2 head and shoulder massages, an ok haircut, and a bowl of pork soup, managed to get out of there an hour and a half later! Wanted to buy some fruit but was getting quoted stupid prices so didn’t bother, had a fruitshake instead for 8000.

Fresh honeycomb at local market

Spikey teeth in the dried fish section

Not good for pot pourri - dried shrimp

More than you bargained for at the hairdressers

Magician turns tree into fish

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Phase 3 Vietnam to ?

Week 11 Ban Na Song to Hanoi 94kms cycled

Highlights: Womens tights, wooly hats, gloves, fleece lined trousers
Low blows: 7 degrees and no sun
Music of the week: It began in Africa – The Chemical Brothers

Ban Na Song to Dien Bien Phu  62km
Pretty flat 10km to start following river, a nice village over suspension bridge to right, then started to go up. A lot of custard powder dust on road, luckily hardly any traffic, but strangely enough as soon as Id taken off my bandana I was wearing for dust and glasses then vehicles magically appeared. This section of road under fresh construction. Theyd already widened the road but were still in process of scratching away at the cliff faces, putting in drains, support walls on corners and getting rubble for building – blokes up on cliff with crow bars knocking down huge rocks and me having to time my passing to avoid being hit by the falling boulders.
 Most of workers saying hello as I slogged past. Ok going for 10kms but last 7 kms up to check point a real slog as steep. The magnificent scenery Id been wanting to see was unfortunately obscured by mist / low cloud, in fact whole sky overcast and spitting a bit, also increasingly colder as nearing the border control on top of hill. Pretty sad too that this quaint track of a road is now a bulldozed rape of the landscape. Im sure the greenery will quickly return though and it should be a lovely route again in a few years time.
Turned out to be only 27km to Laos border and checkpoint seemed deserted, but as I wandered around people appeared. One off duty guy said I had to move my bicycle which I propped on railings, even though there was no one around. Suppose people on such a hardship posting need to boost their ego’s by being authoratitive – jolly good. Another bloke in uniform looking over my dusty clothes and muddy legs and feet – yes apologies for not wearing black tie and cummerbund. Waited for usual bumbling to finish and got my passport back. Went over and had a hot tea and sat round a fire with some girls who ran a beer shop and the bloke who’d just stamped me out of Laos. He said weather wasn’t supposed to be like this.
The final frontier! Looking back at the Laos borderpost shrouded in mist

Set off over no mans land, washing myself down in a stream by the road before  arriving at where the Vietnamese border post used to be. Approached a building with military people in it and some dogs rushed out barking so waited at gate to be told it was now a few kms down the hill. Set off down the tarmaced road to the new customs building. Wandered about in there and was soon spotted and ushered to a room. Formalities over after a comment on my shorts and put another jumper on as bloody cold.
Pretty much down hill for next 20kms, would’ve been beautiful scenery if it hadn’t been so cloudy and dull. Noticed there are a lot more birds on the Viet side. Road went through a quarry, they seemed to be nibbling away at every hillside around rather than get stuck in to just one. Trucks heading fully laden from here along the narrow road Im on kicking up dust, blaring horns and being annoying, passing really close. Headed downhill then onto large plain past a cement factory. Road getting busted up, past a huge field full of water buffalo next to river, and soon going along a wide valley with wet rice paddies on either side. All Thai Dam villages on the way down and along start of the plain, some pretty wooden houses almost in Lanna style. Only left 15kms to DBP, traffic increasing and trucks just blasting through middle with horns blaring. Lots of school kids riding bicycles with white tracksuit uniforms on.
First bit of flat land after the mtns. Lots of water buffalo and every inch of land in production 

Got into town by 2ish and eventually found a place to eat. My lunch which was only a plate of veg and some chicken came to a whopping 80000 (£1=30000) so bloody expensive. Headed down to bus station to look for accommodation and got a room for only 100000 dong so that’s cheap enough, Showered then went in search of tracksuit bottoms, looked at a few places basically will cost a tenner for good pair so will decide and buy tomorrow. Decided to follow Lonely Planets map and look for beer hoi places, but the person who made the map mustve lost their guide dog cos it was useless. Started drizzling, which turned to rain as I sat in a resto near gh chatting with Vietnamese bloke and using his computer to translate – very handy. Nice people in that place. Had a bottle of bia hoi as no one around here sold it from the keg – tasted weird, yeasty and tinny and pretty foul but only 15000 a litre. Its 10 degrees and raining here, not what I had anticipated at all, really don’t like the cold.

Dien Bien Phu
Bed too hard so kept having to rotate as aching body and its also only just long enough and on a tilt so kept sliding down to the end. Apart from that slept well. Heavy rain all night and awoke not to the crowing of cockerels, but to the guy next door hawking his lungs up and gobbing into the courtyard below. Lovely. This went on for a long while. Why they just don’t have a lie in instead of milling about like spare parts I don’t know. I stayed in the warmth of the quilt – warm quilts too thank god!
Eventually quit my nest, had a quick shower due to hot water getting cooler and eventually running out and ate foe over the road. Still bloody cold. Had a look at several gh’s and moved to a quieter one away from the bus station area or a junction – Vietnamese just blast their horn and drive through, the bigger vehicle having priority. New room is 150k but has fast wifi and a very good hot hot shower. Discovered Facebook is banned in Vietnam, but soon figured a way around it. Also looked for weather reports in the hope this overcast damp freezing weather will lift. Seriously considering heading south.
Wandered in market and eventually found some tracksuit bottoms that fitted and were of right material and quality. Price started at 400k but bought in the end for 250k. This haggling with ridiculous amounts really is annoying, they also get shitty with you when you walk away, which I did several times because the starting price was ridiculous and couldn’t even be arsed to entertain them. Started to get a headache, which subsided once Id got my wooley hat on.
Had a cycle round once the drizzle/rain had stopped and went to look at the French marines bunker. 5000Dong entry – A concrete bunker basically, must be awful (understatement) to be stuck in one of these things having the crap shelled out of you. Had a cycle up and down the lanes, this town is basically built along the main roads and only 2 streets back are rice paddies, so feels bigger than it actually is. Had a coffee for 17000Dong (60p). Ate food in a local place, beans and pork with fragrant rice, having a few tots of rice whiskey as a digestive and warmer upper. There’s a plastic water bottle full of the stuff on each table. Then cycled round to a bia hoi place and drunk several beers, while sat in 2 jumpers, jacket and woolly hat. Locals all look absolutely freezing, but only saw 2 people all day wearing a woolly hat, or any other type of hat. Big glass of beer is only 5000 (15p), and pleased to discover this keg beer tastes really good, god knows what was in that stuff yesterday. At night everyone brings in their Vietnamese flag which they hang outside their home on a crooked end pole in the street.
Trying to keep warm at an old gun emplacement near Le Bunker

Dien Bien Phu
Cold cold cold. Drank Beer. Good steak and chips for tea. Raining again. Went in search of some thin leg protection and ended up buying 3 pairs of tights (bit like legins), much to amusement/bemusement of locals. Had a potter round market. People trying to sell me a jacket, despite the fact that Im wearing a brand new jacket, although two jackets would be warmer! Shivering cat in a cage in animal section of market, possibly for eating as with ducks, chickens etc. Weather supposed to be picking up tomorrow so will head toward Sapa.
Dien Bien Phu and back again  30km

Decided to stop being a wuss and set off towards Sapa sporting tights, hat and warm clothing on top. Bloody freezing. After 10kms, started to go up, stripped down to tshirt and still sweaty. 3kms later a downhill stretch. All clothes back on, very cold. Cant see much due to low cloud/mist, its very cold, more so now due to wet skin. Stopped and decided I wasn’t enjoying this and would be pointless to plod on in misery so back to DBP. Nice long downhill  back to gh. for a steaming hot thaw in the shower. Really nice Thai Dam houses, valley bottom all paddied out. People working in fields up to their knees in water and looking cold. Everyone looking cold. It is cold. Went and drank beer in afternoon and plotted my course. Decided to go to Hanoi and get train to South Vietnam and into delta area.

Thai Dam village near Dien Bien Phu

Dien Bien Phu to Hanoi by bus
Got to bus station at 5:30am. Loaded bike into back of small bus and left at 6. Cost 300000. Rice sacks under seats so moved a few of those so I can at least stretch my legs out. Bus not crowded at all and crawled along till we got to the out skirts of town then sped up. Very cold morning and a lot of mist. Some beautiful scenery along the way, karsk mtns silhouetted in the mist, went up a big mtn and got above the cloud layer, tops of hills poking out, then down into a valley full of mango trees and a candyfloss wisps of mist across the whole valley. Bus picked up people including one bloke who livened things up by taking it in turns to sing with an old woman. Mostly Thai Dam people and houses all the way, school kids in some areas in traditional embroidered gowns. Lots of kilns and brick works, and also a small type of sugar cane too. Police checkpoint at one place along the way, police searching some (young) people on board. 2 over turned trucks at different places, and at one point the fog was really thick and there was about 10 western cyclists slogging it up a huge hill, really dangerous too cos visibility 10 meters  and very busy road. Cycling holiday probably.
Hit massive traffic along shitty small road 30kms out of Hanoi, eventually opened up into wide avenues rammed with traffic and no control or direction going on at all – the roundabouts were ridiculous. Tired at this point and wanted to get off. Turns out theres a new bus station10kms out of town and I had no idea where it was either. Got directions from driver, then a mototaxi bloke then just asked everyone every so often the way to Hoah Kiem lake. Wasn’t too bad getting there, slow but steady although had splitting headache from stiff neck. Saw a guy on rollerblades and thought he must know for sure where he was going. I thought anyone doing that had to be Japanese, but turned out to be a Chinese guy and he was lost too. I asked again in a shop and was only 2 blocks from lake. Knew my way from there and soon found a place to stay even though it was 7:30. Luckily 1st try was ok, $15 inc bf. Had a shower then went to eat Pho and had a few bia hois with a couple from Finland.

Above the mist once in a while on high mountains

Cheerful Thai Dam ladies seeing their friend off at the bus station

Cycled down to train station to inquire about booking myself and bike onto train. Went in and all staff pointing around corner and getting hot and bothered. I wanted to establish what train Id be on and if I could take my bike on it, but they just wanted me to put bike into cargo section. Nobody at all working there speaks any English, no info desk or anything and nobody gives a monkeys about you either. A young girl who was sending her motorbike to Hue eventually helped me out. If I send bike in cargo it would be in HCM on Thursday. Didn’t have much confidence in it arriving in one piece so went to look at flights. Woman at hotel checked with station master and theres only one passenger train which cargo goes on and that’s a seat only train; sod sitting down for 2 days! Booked a plane ticket after locating a bike shop where I can get a box from. Had a wander round the old town at night, streets here so busy with traffic and you have to walk in road cos pavements used for motorbike parking. Could it be considered vibrant or just insanely busy and noisy?

Hanoi contd
Walked and cycled around the city, the markets interesting as always.Got lightly run over by an old man and buffed about by 3 different motorbikes carrying huge boxes/sacks/stacks of stuff around the market area. Had bike spray cleaned and picked up bike box in afternoon. I looked like a tramp who’d been in the bins walking back to hotel, with a folded up piece of cardboard under one arm and a see through plastic bag full of old cardboard and packaging material. Got some funny looks. Decided was gonna have dinner then a few beers and an early night, but ended up bumping into bloke from last night and some more of his local mates so stayed out drinking again. Tsk Tsk. Amusing to pee in a smelly toilet over the road where an old man keeps sentry over it from his doorway and tries to overcharge all the foreigners who use it. Must be doing well from it cos he’s got a huge flat screen tv on the wall inside his home.

Selling strawberries next to busy road

Lots of shiny things ready for the upcoming new year

Streetside traders

Streetside trader

Special fruit used as a shrine offering at new year

A stall on sweet street

Bloke takes a hit of tobacco in bamboo bong. Smoke it up Brap! 

Weasel coffee, strong aroma, bitter chocolate flavour, soft in texture..hang on a minute this isnt a coffee bean! 

Bridge over Hoan Kiem Lake

Traditional gift for new year being transported in the traditional manner

Always good to eat some tasty fanny now and then. (Ice Cream shop)

Great name for a bank

 Functioning chaos at a junction in Hanoi's old quarter

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Week 10 Luangnamtha to Ban Na Song 135kms cycled.

Highlights: Good coffee, pleasant riverside roads
Low blows: Getting colder, dust
Music of the week: All that you are – Cinematic Orchestra

Played pass the hilltribe vendor with a French bloke in resto at bf. She was trying to sell bunches of radish things. Disappointing baguette with my fried eggs. Must be getting this hot dog type bread from China – no substance to it at all. Went to morning market and had a browse. Very orderly and clean! Munched some bananas. Lots of herbs and greens laid out in neat little piles. One lady had made a pretty display of pickled cabbage artistically heaped in small bowls. Lots of different types of rice for sale, and tons of clothes. All Chinese. Cycled up to bus station to check times for tomorrow and then took a circuitous route back to gh, sun finally coming out at 11. Had a beer to use free wifi in afternoon then back to room. Had a tasty laap moo at night, shame Ive only just found this resto (Ban Na) cos its really good and cheap too.

Perfectly presented pickled cabbage. Very tasty too

There's more to rice than just brown or white

Luangnamtha to UdomXai by bus
Cool mist actually felt like it was trying to drizzle as I went for bf in same place as last night. Real baguettes! Had omlette and coffee and got a chicken sarnie to take on bus.
Packed up and went bus station early as yesterdays 12 bus left at 10:45. Not many people about, got ticket and bagsied seat then just wandered about to keep warm. Found a baby sparrow shivering in the dirt. Picked it up and gave it to some Laos shop holders who were delighted to have it, they said it was cold, although it looked diseased to me. Waited till everyone had put luggage on roof and then got my bike up there. Took a bit of organizing the lad so he didn’t attatch ropes to owt that might buckle or break.
Left at 11:30, mist only just starting to clear. Driver going pretty fast to start but calmed down eventually. Older women on bus, particulary one in front of me getting travel sick almost immediately, Later on in trip a woman lobbed a bag of retchings out the window and it came back in my open widow and got stuck on frame behind my head. Nice! Luckily the bag only had a bit in it and I only got the slightest bit of spray on me before I batted it back out of the window. Stopped off at a roadside mkt and I bought some pine nuts. Glad I decided to take the bus as about half of the way 50kms is undergoing renovation and just gravel so a lot of dust kicking up. Looks like the Chinese influence is well under way, a lot of the small towns along the way are having a boom period at the moment.
Arrived UdomXai 3 hours later. Found new gh for 60000kip, although took a while to find anyone around (got a hairdresser across the road to show me a room). Wandered around market, the usual stuff except for an interesting stall selling things to burn when someone dies. They had the usual gold paper and money, but a modern twist added a fake shirt and tie with gold watch, mobile phone, credit card, and bar of gold. The guy in the shop showed me they also had a passport and plane tickets to heaven or hell, and a credit card.

Essential items for the journey to the other side.....where's the ipod and xbox?

Passport, tickets, money. Passport, tickets, money. Passport, tickets, money

Around Udomxai 40km

Was getting set for off but got talking with gh owner and he said the place I planned to ride to tonight was just a 3 room place at a junction. As it was a bit late to be doing a 100km stint and the room was pretty comfy I didn’t need much persuading to stay another day. Went down the road to PakBeng for 20km then came back. Very pretty wooded hillsides, rice paddies, and villages stocking up with firewood in neat racks either under their houses or at edge of road along the way. Most people saying hello. Small roadside mkt going on, nothing unusual there although a lot of stalls selling dead rats. Reakon itd be a nice ride to PakBeng. Had a nosy at loads of trucks laden with huge tree roots. Driver said they were going to China for furniture. Across from weigh station a Chinese company setting up some agricultural project. Its all Chinese here! Went for a massage at red cross place at 4:30. Not very good. Checked temps for China on internet cos when I watched Chinese news on telly it looked extremely cold but they must have been giving temps in farenheight as they are on par with last years avgs.

 Big treestumps bound for China

UdomXai to Muang Khoua 98km
Omelet and coffeed up for bf then off by 8:30, bit later than Id hoped but not to worry as easy cycling all day. Up and down all the way with latter half mainly down. Bit of a hill to start, but after 25kms road followed flow of river all the way. What appeared to be a romantic, misty haze 8km out of Udomxai turned out to be ‘Udomxai garbage field’ as proclaimed by a sign, heaps of smouldering plastic everywhere. Felt sorry for a farmhouse nearby. Also passed a sign saying I speak Spanish and then another declaring ‘El Horno del Muerto’ the oven of death, and further along cementario. Said buenas dias to bloke who was sat on his porch. Scenery got better the nearer I got to MuangKhoua. Some lovely villages along the way and one picture perfect, across river at a bend on a big mound of a hill, lots of wooden houses. (Didn’t take a pic cos overcast). Some bamboo floating bridges across river giving access to some villages.
Stopped off for tea (no charge) and later had lunch at where Id planned to cycle to yesterday – good decision not to stay the night here as it’s just a bus station/ patch of dust with 3 rooms in a concrete bunker at end. A few places selling bbq meat. I ended up with chicken livers, deer meat, sticky rice and fanta- best choice of some other unhygienic looking stuff. Watched people fishing in river while I chewed away. All rubbish from these restos just chucked down banking so there were papaya trees with cig packets in the leaves and bushes adorned with different coloured plastic bags.
My stomach found it hard to digest the meat and it didn’t give me much energy so felt tired from 1:30pm onwards, stopped off to lay down and stretch my back on large concrete blocks at edge of bridge in shade and I think I nodded off for a bit. Lucky it was an easy ride or I would’ve struggled for last bit. Passed a strange, deserted line of houses at one point. Wonder where the people went to? Along the way, people busy making things in villages, men making fishing nets with nylon string, people weaving baskets, freshly woven sheets of bamboo used for the sides of houses drying in the sun, 2 lads in underpants with snorkel masks walking down the street with a catch of several small fish.
Got to MuangKhoua by 3:30, found a place to stay – not much good accom , food or owt here. Found a cheap resto up near mkt, ate then showered and relaxed a bit. Went for a walk later, the cast iron suspension bridge is in a state of disrepair and has huge holes and loose panels in it, but they are building a brand new concrete road bridge a bit further down river and there’ll be one over Mekong too. Might perk the town up a bit. Not much else has changed in 2 years since I last came,  one good resto on riverside now shut and 2 new ones opened (overpriced), also the bus station is now 3kms out of town. Theres not much to love in this town although the hotch potch of houses and tiny dusty back lanes are interesting to wander about.

Yet another use for a tok tok

The second nicest thing in the bathroom

The bridge of death falling apart while you walk, locals didnt seemed fazed at all

Muang Khoua
Overcast and cold day. Ate bf up near mkt and watched life go by. A Chinese man and his son had driven a tok tok truck all the way from Mengla to sell satsumas here 5000kip/kilo, seemed to be doing a roaring trade too. I bought satsumas and bananas in mkt. Was invited by owner of resto to go to a house blessing but as Id no trousers (polite clothes) I couldn’t go, she said it was ok, but I knew it wasn’t the done thing.  Changed gh to one a few doors down, far better room for 60000kip and a bit of a view of the Nam Ou aswell. Spent  most of afternoon, drinking hot Phongsali tea and munching a packet of biscuits (which had taken an entire circuit of the town to locate)- people don’t seem to snack here, probably can’t afford all the same things Thais like to munch on, the only shop with the small cake things I like wanted to sell me the whole carton. Had a wander about later on to inspect the new bridge construction and chance it again on the knackered iron bridge back into town.

Muang Khoua to Ban Na Song 37km
People in this town really are in slow motion. Despite getting up early by the time I’d been fed and coffee’d it was 8am. I compared these people to the Thai, who once you’ve ordered usually have the food in front of you in 5 minutes or less, takes the Laos that long to think about what you ordered. The Chinese mans satuma monopoly had also ended as a Laos lady had parked her truck, fully laden with satsumas right next to his - let batttle commence. Got down to rivers edge by 8:30 and across on the car ferry, which is working today after welding parts of the ramp back together all day yesterday. No one to charge me either –a freebie!
Set off along old dusty road and soon came to where a new bridge is being built over Nam Ou. Road from here onwards under construction, wide, dusty, some lovely smooth clay in parts, and carving its way through the winding hillside. Chatted with Italian cyclist coming the other way, asked him if he’d noticed a gh in town along way and he said he hadn’t so a bit worried if there’ll be anywhere to stay or not! Followed river for about 6kms then went inland and uphill for next 15kms, lots of floury powder and gravel- thankfully hardly any traffic as the vehicles that did go past kicked up a right plume. Climbing, climbing, climbing, feel tired and knees aching, aching, aching, maybe feeling tired cos too much lounging about?, but I don’t have a choice because the date of entry into Vietnam is fixed.
Earth movers carving tiers into hillside and rocks/earth cascading down a pile onto road – best to go quick past here. Blokes breaking up slate type rock and cementing it to the rain gullies at the roadside, further on blokes installing drains. Some shoddy work in parts as cement already cracked. Several workers encampments in large green tents along the way. Slow going, eventually hit the top and rather cool so jumper on for the downhill, this section more bumpy than the up. Seems they are constructing it from where I started onwards. Easy to take a photos as all the screen vegetation at side of road buried under tons of earth and rubble. Kids in all villages shout “falang’ when they see you and then all kids in village waving like mad, bye bye, sabaidee and the occasional good morning, which made the going more fun.
By 1:30ish arrived at village I planned to stay at, going over a rickety foot suspension bridge  rather than fjord the river, with loose boards that gave way as you crossed and only the cable underneath stopped me going through. There are now 3 ghs in town! Stopped at one down by the river which had a new 50k room, no hot shower but a hot flask is available from reception to mix in a bucket. Ate a massive plate of veg and buffalo meat with rice – even surprised myself I ate it all, showered and had a wander up village, achy knees. 3 dogs laying in a row looking cute in front of butchers stall. All shops goods and houses on main street covered in a layer of orange dust, some of these houses will be demolished to make way for new road, one wooden home further down road surrounded on 3 sides by huge piles of earth that’d been dug out of banking opposite. A lot of people down by the river, washing clothes, taking a bath, brushing teeth, shaving hair off a dead pig, cleaning guts from fish, washing motorbikes/trucks -its all going on down here!
Car ferry across the Nam Ou river looking back to Muang Khoua

Satsuma break at top of first big hill

A scarred mountain ridge reveals the new road and long downhill section

Oh go on...

Ban Na Song
Ate foe in Vietnamese place up road. No one does coffee here, only 3 in 1 sachets. Lots of Thai Dam people around the market, their hair tied up in a bun skewered with a hair pin with an old French coin on the end. Others wear a headscarf which flops over at the front and is decorated with coins. Saw one woman who’d perched a motorbike helmet on top of all this too!  Bit of action in the mkt when a duck stole of big piece of meat perched on top of a womans upturned box and was shaking it viciously when she noticed and gave chase. The duck dropped the meat and ran, she picked up the meat from the dirt and plonked it back on box. I expect she washed it later.
Cycled up the valley along a bumpy road passing through several Thai Dam villages -most people friendly and curious, some wary. Crossed over a rickety wooden suspension bridge in one village. A wood yard loading thick heavy oblong blocks of teak into a Vietnamese truck. Not much to do in afternoon but would rather be here than in Muang Khua, read up on route and had a Beer Hanoi in a Vietnamese place up the road. Bought some snacks for tomorrow and drank some ovaltine observing the locals washing in the river – they must be freezing as Im sat in a fleece jumper and my jacket drinking hot drinks. Seemed funny packing my thick, knee length woolly socks, woolly hat, 2 jumpers and a jacket and sleeping bag back in Thung Song, where if it got cool you put on a t-shirt, but I’m very happy to have them with me now! 

Rush hour in the village

Tops of reeds drying in the sun, used to stuff pillows and blankets etc