Gotta get out of Vietnam quickly! Desperate times call for....
I had woken up every morning in the last few days of my stay in Hanoi feeling wretched. I didn’t feel ill in the conventional sense but my body just seemed depleted of energy. It never seemed to matter how much water or orange juice I had drank the night before or indeed how much food I had eaten – my body just didn’t want to do anything more than lie in bed or perhaps take a little stroll through town.
Being on a 15 day visa though meant that I really did have to leave soon and the day finally arrived on the 31st. I had three days left to somehow cycle the 275 km’s to the Laotian border and I knew it was going to be tough. I was now pretty much at sea level and I knew for a fact that that tiny Laotian border lay up in those mountains 1500 – 2000 metres above sea level. It was a sobering though.
I rode off with my little hand drawn map stuffed into my back pocket and prayed my exit from the city would leave me unscathed.
Despite not feeling my best, I somehow made my way through the throngs of traffic to a point ten km’s from the centre but I just felt my body weaken. My feet felt heavy when pushing the pedals and my entire body felt lethargic.
It was New year’s Eve and I didn’t want to spend the night alone in a damp tent with fireworks going off and so, when I spotted hotel on the outskirts of the city, I decided I would get a proper rest, eat and drink as much healthy shit as I could lay my hands on and set out bright and early the next morning.
Some people might wonder what I actually carry with me in my bags and so here’s a little guide as to what I took with me on the road when I left Hanoi. Some people carry much less but I always carry more than I need. So without further ado, here is my pantry contents as Daniel Shaw calls it….
What kind of food do I exactly pack when cycle touring?
500 - 1000g Porridge
1 Large bag of fresh coffee + some tea bags
1 bags of pasta
1 bag of rice
4 instant soups
Stock cubes/bag of mixed herbs/fresh garlic
Soy sauce/fish sauce/vegetable oil/tomato sauce
6 bags of instant noodles
Six packs of cookies
As my water is always free and I live in my tent, I can usually live on about $2 per day or $7 if I wish to splash out for a hotel and some coke. And people say travelling is expensive!
It was an easy ride out of Hanoi south west past the usual industrial detritus that always seems to envelope large cities. I followed the main highway for much of the afternoon but which spat me out onto some very small roads that criss crossed small villages. Having asked for some directions to the city of Hoa Binh, I found myself cycling along a path that was elevated above the rice paddies that surrounded me but I eventually found the road I had been looking for.
The road was flat for a period after this and, after a few turns, it narrowed and I began to make my way gently through the hills and forest towards Laos.
I stopped at a cafe just to get out of the rain for a bit and got talking with a guy whom lived In Hanoi. After I had told him of the predicament I was in, he didn’t seem too confident of my being able to hitchhike with a bicycle and told me it was better for me to leave the bicycle here and to come back to Hanoi with him. As kind as his offer was, I assured him that in order to get on the bus from Hanoi, I needed to have a Laotian visa already in your passport. He then phoned a friend whom confirmed that the information I had was in fact horse shit. This I found strange as the border for individuals is open only until 6 pm and buses cross it much later.
It’s funny really that when people sometimes see me, their immediate thought is that I’m on a trip through their country before flying home. It never ever occurs to them that I’m on such a long trip and thus is the reason why I’m carrying so much.
I was beginning to get hungry later in the afternoon but I didn’t want to waste time making food for myself. The food I was carrying would be purely to sustain me through the mountains of Laos and so I stopped off at a restaurant by the side of the road. I entered it and it seemed to be buzzing with activity which is always a good sign. The food smelt great too. A young girl spoke some English and told me that the only thing they could offer me was dog. I’m not lying here! I asked if they just have some noodles minus Lassie but she said she only had noodles and Lassie and so I told her I would find somewhere that served chicken instead.
I was ushered into a restaurant on the other side of the road and got a bowl of noodles with some kind of cartilage in it. The food was nice but the cartilage I couldn’t eat. Perhaps that was from a dog too.
I cycled on in the rain for what felt like an eternity. I was soaked inside and out but I just couldn’t stop for anything other than food. I just didn’t have the time.
It was now getting dark and I sweated up some huge climbs where the road followed a ridge of sorts. Darkness fell and I began to panic once again that I wouldn’t find anywhere to camp. Village after village lined the road and my situation seemed hopeless. I was now riding in complete darkness with the only illumination coming in the form of trucks approaching me from behind. Time to put on the hi vis I thought. A half hour later I came to a house by the side of the road that had some disused land by the side of it. Having seen a man, I indicated my plans as best I could and he told me that it would be okay to camp there. I thanked him and headed off into the darkness.
I was on my way by six the next morning. I still had 150 km’s or so to go and only twelve hours to do it in. This was going to be tough.
I began ascending quite gradually up into the mountains. The whole place was misty and it really did seem very tropical what with the banana trees everywhere and the mist enveloping the surrounding mountains. Despite the hills and the rain however, I was making good progress.
By ten however, I decided it was time to pull out my trump card and so I plastered my ‘help me’ sign onto the back of my bike and rode on in the hope that some Good Samaritan would see it.
This never happened.
90% of the vehicles on the road were scooters but the other 10% were either pickup trucks or actual trucks and so I got a little disheartened that no one stopped.
I rode on. Time was ticking away and I was sure I wouldn’t make the border today. The mountains were impeding my progress far too much and I decided it was no use. I would just have to leave the country one day late. I had a spare $25 dollars if they wanted to fine me and so this is what I settled for. At least now I could relax a little.
I arrived in a small town by 14:00 and decided that, since I wasn’t now in such a haste to make it to the border by the days end, I would sit down for a while at a café. I wanted to make the most of these opportunities of simply being able to relax in towns rather than simply parking my ass somewhere by the road which was what I often did in China. Here I could sit in relative peace without being constantly stared at or having my photo taken. It was a joy.
Leaving town, the larger road I had been travelling on narrowed into a single track. As it undulated in the extreme, I was having a hard time coping with the humidity but, as if to offset this, the children waved, the adults said hello and scenery continued to provide me with great views across the rice paddies.
It’s not so easy to find secluded places to camp in such a populated country and, with every bit of land that isn’t forest being used for something, I had to pitch in a fairly open spot. Thus it was that I had the usual visitors armed with flashlights later on that night whom decided to have a good poke inside my tent too. I don’t know why they feel the need to wake someone up when it’s pitch black and they’re clearly asleep but they did give me some kind of vitamilk drink that was quite tasty.
I left bright and early the next morning determined to make it to the border today. I had to. One day I could probably get away with but two days was certainly pushing my luck.
I knew at some point I had to turn west off this road but this turn-off never seemed to materialize. I rode on and on, up and down and every town/village I passed seemed to have a name not mentioned on my map. Consequently I began to get a little worried.
I rode the final 5 km’s with about six other kids on their bicycles which was a nice introduction to the final stretch and turned west at around noon. The sign indicated I still had eighty kilometre’s to go. I sighed. I would need to resort to plan C – hitchhiking proper. First I’d see how far I got by about two and make a decision then.
Another monster climb took me west and into the mountains proper. It was a tough start for sure. On it went, higher and higher. Fuck I wasn’t looking forward to Laos. This was meant to be the easy bit and I was struggling here!
I stopped off at a small shop at the top where I sat with the lady and her kid who kept running around and laughing and saying “hello, hello, hello!” I’m not too good with children but I’m actually making some progress in entertaining them which is something I’ll have to get used to if I want to teach English I guess.
I bought a huge bottle of Fanta and asked the woman where I should put my empty water bottle. I was told to throw it into the bushes at the side of her house. I did as I was told, I mean, where else was I going to put it. I just don’t know how people don’t mind living with piles of trash next to their homes.
I continued on my way. The scenery was breath-taking. The road rose and fell all day long and the cries of the children filled my ears in every village I passed.
How to hitch-hike with a bicycle and seven panniers
By 3 pm, I still had 50 km’s to go. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do this in three hours and so I set up shop at the top of a small hill just outside a village. I think I waited all of five minutes and the first truck I stopped offered me a lift. Easy stuff I thought. Now I know how to do it and it isn’t with a note stuck on the back of your bike,.
I thrust my note in the drivers hands so he understood that I needed to cross the border today and he immediately got to work helping me load my stuff into the back.
I don’t really mind taking lifts from time to time. I know there are these purists out there who will, under no circumstances take lifts, whilst on their tour, but I kind of see it differently. Travelling for me is about adventure, getting out of your comfort zone and experiencing different ways of doing things. I could now have a front row seat in a huge truck as it drove around these tight bends on the narrow road through villages where children, dogs, pig’s and chicken’s block your path. Yes, the horn really is necessary! As horrible as it is for me. I do understand why they have to use it so much.
I sat up front on the ‘bed’ behind the driver and his mate. I was knackered and they could clearly see it and so I was told to lie down and get some rest. I did this without hesitation and relaxed in the knowledge that I would at least only be overstaying for one day. Thank goodness.
They dropped me off ten km’s before the border at about half four. With ten km’s to go and one and a half hours to do it in, I decided I had time to join them at some kind of party that was going on. The Vietnamese are so friendly! In fact, you know what – the whole world is so bloody friendly so long as you get out of the tourist areas. Just grab yourself a bicycle or a scooter and see for yourself.
I arrived at the border at half five. I had made it! A great feeling it was too as you can imagine.
Arriving at the Laotian border
Leaving my bike outside and looking as tired and dishevelled as I could, I walked up the steps and into the reception area before handing over my passport, taking a seat by the wall and biting my nails in preparation for what they had to say. The guards exchanged glances at each other. I took off my shoes and massaged my feet whilst I made little groans as if to show them how hard I tried in order to get here on time.
Tick tock tick tock
The big familiar thud of a stamp slammed down in my passport some minutes later and I was told it was no problem at all. I now had $40 instead of just $15 after I had paid for my Laotian visa. Hell I might even be able to afford one night in a guesthouse before I arrived in Nong Khiaw. I felt great.
A few minutes later I found myself stood outside the Laotian border office, and having filled in the form and given them a photograph was asked for the visa fee of $40. That took me aback. I knew that UK citizens pay just $35 and, what with the state of my finances at the moment, I wasn’t about to let $5 slip through my fingers without a challenge. I asked him why this was the case.
Border guy: It is $40 USD for you
Me: I’m sure it’s $35. I checked on the website before I left Hanoi.
Border guy: No. $40.
Me: Hmm. I have this. One moment (walks back to bag and retrieves a printout of visa fees for most nationalities). Look, at this, it says $35 for UK citizens.
Border guy: Yes but (points at clock) It is overtime. $5 more.
Me: Overtime? Its 17:45. You close at six.
Border guy: No, no, no. Overtime.
Me: I don’t understand. I have fifteen minutes left. This is all the money I have. I need it. I have fifteen minutes left.
Me: May I speak with someone else?
Border guy: Hmmm. It is $40 for you.
Me: I do not think this is correct. It states here that it is $35
Borer guy. But you must pay overtime fee.
Me: This is fucking ridiculous. I’m tired and I still need to find somewhere to sleep. Fine, here.
I reluctantly gave him the $40 dollars and he even had the cheek to ask if half of them were even real. (Something had spilt on some of them).
It wasn’t a great introduction to the wonderful country of Laos but I tried to put it behind me and cycled off into the jungle. I was in country number twenty three, a country where flat land didn’t seem to exist and a country that would prove to be one of the toughest places I have cycled yet.