- Jamie Shannon
Luang Prabang to Hanoi. Yet more extraordinary coincidences. The end is nigh
I arrived back in Hanoi almost a month ago and I have been able to concentrate on getting myself settled into life here. I have no idea how long I’ll be here but it’s really a quite fantastically crazy and chaotic city and I’m already enjoying the challenges and frustrations that are inevitably thrown up when one finds themselves living and working in a completely foreign and exotic country.
Cycling from Laos to Vietnam - back on the road
Back in Laos I decided to take a bus to the small town of Phonsaven. The decision wasn’t taken lightly but It was something I simply had to do. I couldn’t spend another two weeks cycling endless mountains again and I really did need to start working rather soon.
I found a cheap hotel in Phonsaven where I relaxed for the evening with some other travellers. I left early the next morning but not before I managed to drop my MP3 player down the toilet whilst taking a leak. Dammit! That went straight into a bag of rice I had in my pannier but alas, it just couldn’t be saved.
I was now high up on a kind of plateau and the road gradually descended throughout the day. The scenery wasn’t particularly great considering I was still in Laos but I was just happy to be cycling in 2nd gear after what had seemed like an eternity spinning the pedals ferociously for a couple of weeks.
Most of the houses out here seemed to be in a much better condition than the ones farther north and the occupants, what with their Toyota trucks parked outside, seemed to be more prosperous. Gone were the constant shouts of sabaidee from the children whilst people showered naked outside. This was indeed a very different place to the north of the country.
I met a French guy about 15 km’s out of Phonsaven whom was going the opposite way to me. After a brief chat, he told me there was a French couple about 30 km’s up ahead but I declined to catch them up. I had been surrounded by French people for two weeks already and I needed a break from them.
With about 80km’s done for the day I decided to tackle as much of the mountain as possible before hitting the hay and eventually found a secluded spot just off the road on some scrub-land later on.
Well I thought it was secluded but I ended up having about five annoying kids inviting themselves over whilst I cooked dinner and they made funny buffalo noises. I braced myself for another visit later on in the night from the adults of the nearby village but this didn’t materialise for some reason. Great success as Borat would say!
It was extremely hard work the following morning but I just kept telling myself that this was the last mountain to climb on this trip – the last obstacle that stood in my way before cruising on down to the coast in Vietnam. This kept my spirits up it really did.
Back in Nong Khiaw whilst Laura and I were walking around the markets, I spotted a huge wad of inner tube repair patches and since I only had one left, thought it was prudent to stock up just in case. It was a good thing I did because I had three punctures in the two day ride to Luang Prabang, one the previous day since leaving Phonsaven and I had another one to fix this morning. There is literally no tread left on the back tyre and it's left as bald as a shaved goat.
Having cycled another 5 km’s, the back tyre went flat again! This was getting ridiculous and I seriously wondered about the feasibility of my completing this stage on my bicycle. I had about five inner tubes left but every single one had already been patched up four or five times. Miraculously this one lasted for a whole 24 hours before finally bursting once again.
In the northern villages, I had seen some strange things happening and one of these was repeated today. I stopped by a group of young girls and boys whom were all dressed up in ceremonial costumes. The girls could be seen throwing small balls to the different boys. I had no idea what this meant when I first saw this a few weeks ago but having looked on the internet, I found out they were selecting the boy they wished to marry. That was a new one on me. The boys I must say never looked too interested through.
Entering Vietnam and the last stretch of the trip
I was quickly stamped out of the country and rode the half kilometre to the Vietnam border where things went just as smoothly. My visa began on the 28th which was the date today so I had timed it to perfection for a change.
I was still in the mountains of course, but luckily for me, the road would now descend all the way down to the coast – it was the break I had been waiting for.
It felt great to be back in Vietnam though. There were shops and most importantly, there were places selling food everywhere even though I was still only passing through small villages. It was a huge difference to Laos where the only thing I could find was noodle soup. Unfortunately, I had arrived smack bang during TET New Year holiday thus everything seemed closed.
I hadn’t got more than a couple of km’s into the country when I was shouted to stop and join some people for a party. Literally everybody in every village seemed to be eating, drinking and just generally having a good time. Scooter after scooter zipped by with three or four guys hanging off whom shouted at me and waved their arms crazily. It sure was a party atmosphere.
The scenery was awesome and there came a moment a little later on where, having been boxed in by thick forest for some time, I turned a corner and the valley opened up completely to reveal a vast chasm with a river running far far below. It was spectacular.
Unfortunately this happened at exactly the same time as I received another lovely flat tyre.
Later on, I reached a junction which sat by the river I had seen earlier where I turned right onto a road that would follow the river for the next couple of days.
I passed through a large town but, since everything was closed, I stopped by a bar where I enquired if it was possible to change some dollars into Vietnamese Dong. More and more people turned up and before I knew it, I found myself down in the basement singing karaoke. I doubted that I was any good and made my excuses to leave after one song. When I walked back upstairs I was greeted by a kid no older than thirteen whom could speak a little English. Through him I managed to change the money I had with me for a pretty shitty exchange rate.
I found a spot down by the river at about 5 which was just perfect for me although it would require six trips up and down in order to get everything from the road to the riverbank. It was a small price to pay for such a lovely spot though.
Throughout the day, I had been given various gifts from the people I met along the way, two of which were a kind of sticky rice cake wrapped around some egg and meet and covered in banana leaves. I fried this and had it for dinner and it was quite delicious.
The tent was to erect this evening as I found out the set of poles had broken in several places. They have broken now in three separate points and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to manage the problem. A lot of my equipment is in need of servicing or replacement and I just hope it can all hold out for just a few more days.
The scenery across the river was absolutely gorgeous and the sun shone all day long the following day. It was mostly downhill on smooth roads and through small villages where everyone waved. It really doesn’t get much better than that.
I managed to find a gas station in the morning where I was charged a total 0 Dong for my petrol. So many gifts were being flung my way now that I was kind of getting used to it.
I stopped off at a café a little later in order to enjoy one of my favourite things in Vietnam – yes slow drip Vietnamese coffee. It’s akin to rocket fuel it really is. I stayed here for an hour where I ‘talked’ with many people whom came and went or whom just sat and watched me as I ate some tasty sausage and rice cake. Once again, my payment was swiftly rejected. I simply spent the hour trying to amuse the people around me with various attempts at sign language.
The day wore on and I passed the next few hours riding through exquisite scenery and blissful sunshine until a most accommodating piece of good fortune fell into my lap.
As I was cycling along, a car slowed down by the side of me. Now this isn’t such an unusual thing to say the least but in this case, the man inside spoke impeccable English and this was unusual. He was called Steve and he was American. He had been in the garden of his mother in law’s home when his wife had seen me cycle past and told him to go after me which he duly did.
He asked me if I would like to join him, his wife and her family who was over from America to enjoy the New Year festivities. I really did need to get to Hanoi as quickly as possible but I decided that, with 70 km’s already in the bag for the day, I could allow myself some time off.
It was only after turning around and I began to ride alongside him that he told me he owned two American schools in Hanoi. “We should speak more”, he said. Well that really is a stroke of amazing good fortune. I have said it before and I’ll say it again; you really do not know what is around the next corner in life!
Thus I spent the rest of the day and evening enjoying some amazing hospitality with Steve, Steve Sr and his wife’s family too. We had a huge feast later on which was just delicious but at which point the shots of homemade corn liquor began to be poured ever more frequently.
All in all, it was a fantastic night of meeting some great people and as an added bonus, I was offered a job in one of Steve’s schools once I made it back to Ha-Noi. Things don’t get more perfect than that do they?
I left the next morning at about eleven feeling decidedly groggy and began the day with a few too many climbs for my liking. The road moved away from the river as it undulated quite dramatically. The six cans of coke I received from Steve went down a treat I must say and really helped with my hangover too.
With about 60 km’s done for the day and feeling thoroughly knackered I decided to hit the hay when I saw a small hotel by the side of the road. The rain was falling intermittently and this played a part in my decision too. The owner wanted 250 000 Dong but when I saw the room, I offered him 150 000 instead. It was gladly accepted and I could at least rest this night without the need of finding somewhere to erect the tent in such a heavily populated country.
When I had brought my bags down in the morning, I noticed my back tyre was again flat. I had fixed all five of my other inner tubes the night before and so I hoped I would have enough spares to get me back to Ha-Noi. This just wasn’t to be however.
It’s horrible riding the bike through the more heavily populated area’s with this fear that I'll get a puncture at any time. I just hate having to fix them in villages or towns where a huge crowd of people always gathers around me. It’s so hot and tiring that I’m not in the best of moods anyway. When people start asking me questions in Vietnamese or touching and playing with my belongings, well I really don’t have the patience for it.
Despite receiving at least one or two flats per day, everything else had been going very well. It was mostly easy work as I was approaching the coast of Vietnam and the following day was no different.
Gone were the striking peaks of the mountains that had been with me for almost a month now. Instead, I found myself surrounded by huge swathes of bright rice paddies. They were really quite eye catching.
With the mountains now gone, the entire country seemed to be out and about doing whatever it is they do – mostly driving scooters at insane speeds with about 3 huge gas canisters strapped to the back. As I approached the end of my eastern push to the coast, the amount of traffic on the roads grew to a level I hadn’t seen for a while. This was definitely somewhere I’d need to keep my head.
I flew along the highway with a pumping soundtrack in my ears and was just enjoying the fact that I was cycling faster than a lot of the scooters although this might have been because each of them had three people on the back.
I cycled on and on and on until I realised that finding somewhere along the highway was a fruitless task. Instead, I turned off up some small roads after which I began to see a small wooded area. I found a spot right at the back which almost looked like a bomb crater. Still I was out of view and thus felt safe and secure for the night.
Then a dog began barking
Oh well, this happens about three hundred times a day
I began to cook my dinner
The dog crept closer
I continued to cook whilst keeping my large bamboo stick close by in case of an incident.
The dog (a huge Alsatian that is) just wouldn’t shut the fuck up and continued its rant for half an hour until it was finally dark and a lady joined me. She was peering over the edge of the top of the crater but with it being pitch black and with no common tongue, there wasn’t much I could do to appease her.
I went inside my tent and ate but of course half an hour later three other people stood above me pointing flashlights down at my tent. This was going to be a long night indeed.
One of them jumped down and nearly broke his leg in the process. After trying to communicate with him for a while, I thought it would be a good idea to join him at his house which kind of backed onto where I was sleeping. It was the least I could do I suppose.
I followed him through the woods to his house where I was swiftly seated and asked if I would like some food. I declined their offer as I had literally just finished eating before they arrived but they would simply not take no for an answer. It was no use. I was their guest and I had to eat. In the end, I accepted but really hoped it wouldn’t be another bowl of chicken feet.
It was all a little strange really. When I got up, I felt a slight pain in my left foot and so the guy’s mother began to massage my foot. It’s not often you receive a free foot massage and a bowl of chicken in the same night.
With no common tongue, it was all just exhausting work and so I made my excuses to leave soon after.
Not even twenty minutes later though, another man arrived outside my tent whom actually spoke English. He asked if I would like to join him at his house for the evening but since it was now 9pm, dark and I was already camped out in the woods I had to decline his offer. It’s a shame to do this but when you are completely knackered there’s just no other way.
I dropped by a phone shop the next day in order to buy a Vietnamese sim card for the smartphone I had been gifted back in Laos. Yes you heard that correctly. I am now the owner of a smartphone not really out of myself actually wanting one but rather out of necessity. Laura had thought it prudent that I take her old one in order to stay in touch with her. I must admit that now, one month later it has become pretty invaluable in this respect.
And so it was that, having travelled to Vietnam all the way from England with no smartphone at all, I would now be enjoying internet access from within my tent on the very last night of the trip. It really is a funny old world.
I was determined to spend this last night camping and so I became embroiled in bitter battle with myself in my quest to find somewhere for the night. It wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination but I did manage it. I cycled into the night before coming off the highway and meandering round some very small streets where everyone seemed very pleased to see this strange man on a bike. They really must have wondered where on earth I was going. It was dark and I couldn’t really see a thing, but I was able to cycle off into the rice paddies and find the perfect spot to camp.
I left before first light the following morning. I still had about one hundred km’s to cycle and to do it in one day would require some effort.
As I got within 30 km’s of the city, the traffic grew far more intense than when I approached Hanoi from the north some weeks before. Hundred’s, no thousands of scooters jostled for position on the thin highway I was now travelling on. It really is a sight to behold and an experience I’ll not likely forget in a hurry.
At 10km’s out, I sank a celebratory beer with some people and by 15:00, I had arrived in the city proper. Instead of going straight into the tourist quarter, elected to find a hotel 4km’s from the centre. After some fierce haggling, I managed to get a nice room for $10 and then went in search of a Bia Hoi where you can grab a beer for the equivalent of about 25 pence. It would be rude not to I suppose. I met a chairman Mao lookalike here too and another man whom wouldn’t stop trying to touch my chest hair.
So that’s how I got back to Hanoi.
The end……for now.