Idling in idyllic Moung May, Laos. Day 11

Waking up in a soft, clean bed, with not a hint of cacophonous honking in the background that was so typical of Vietnam, and the soft cooing of pigeons from a coop just behind the guesthouse … this was a few degrees short of heavenly bliss, and more so when my legs had just about reached their limits.

I didn’t care what the time was; it was early and the sun had just risen — and I wasn’t going anywhere today. By this time into the tour, my body had already  adjusted itself to waking up early; but today, I had the luxury of languishing in bed without having to think about packing up and getting ready to hit the road before it got too hot.

Nothing soothes tired a body more than a good night’s rest. Never mind that Moung May’s electricity supply only came on from 6pm to 10pm (Moung May was that rustic). While the power was flowing, Amphon guest-house was a like beacon in the night. No other property could compare with it in terms of the number of lights it had blazing. It was undoubtedly the pride of the town.

Muong May’s remoteness also ensured that the temperature was very agreeable when the sun sets. So, even when the power had gone off and there was no fan to keep the air moving, it still made for a comfortable night.

Eventually, hunger (you’re almost always hungry when you’re cycle-touring) forced me out of bed. As I walked out into the dusty street, the sun had just risen over the horizon although it was hiding behind the clouds. The air was cool and a light mist was slowly dissipating over the town. Some of the townspeople, small baskets in hand filled toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap and towels; were on their way to the river to carry out their morning rituals.

After a not-so-hearty breakfast of Pho (what else), I went about exploring this little 2-street hamlet. The main street led to the river where one had to cross to continue one’s way to the next town. Some of the houses were decrepit and ramshackle, and some were a little better off, especially those engaging in some form of trade.

Early morning in Moung May…cool, misty, and peaceful.

Main street, Moung May. Amphon GH is on the left. The road continues on, a short distance away towards…

… a junction leading to the market, and about 150 metres straight ahead is the river.

Ahead the road ends in the river, and across was the road continued towards Muong Khua, the next town about 40km away.

My favourite hangout in Moung May was the cafe on stilts at the end of the road next to the river.

The best place to watch Moung May unfold. I lounged here for hours reading, or doing nothing, but always, my camera was ready…

when little kids came to frolick in the shallow river…

or when vehicles crossed the river. There weren’t many. It was also the only way for 4-wheelers to get into, and out of, town. This Chinese-made truck was similar to the one I hitched a ride on the day before.

Other interesting sights soon glided into view…like this fellow who had cleverly lashed bamboo poles together and floated downriver to his house, located just to his right on the bank, behind the bamboo fence.

And then there were little fishermen. In these parts of the world, as soon as you were able, you had to do your share of putting food on the table. This boy of about 12 years, carried himself with such a determined and confident manner, you knew he wasn’t doing this for fun.

The footbridge (also for motorbikes) a little downstream from where cars crossed the river.

Almost all the townsfolk did their washing as well as bathing al fresco.

Once, I happened to walk by the same washing place and saw a girl cleaning something that looked suspiciously like a rat…

IT WAS. I couldn’t imagine what it tastes like. One thing was for sure — I wasn’t going to be caught accidentally eating a rodent.

At the bridge crossing the river — these 2 girls were on their way home after washing in the river, but stopped in their tracks when they saw me with my camera.

A popular spot for washing clothes. Cars would cross the river precariously near them

Moung May’s police station, open only in the morning.

One of Moung May’s many convenience stores.

Kitchen ware, hardware, tyres …

The night before, as I was checking in, I had noticed a dozen or so mountain bikes in the courtyard and thought they must be cycle-tourers as well. I was too tired to find out then and I decided to talk to them in the morning instead. It turned out they were Thais and were following the exact route I had taken, in reverse, and going all the way to Hanoi.

These bunch of friendly matured guys were doing it a little differently from me — they didn’t carry their stuff with them; they would instead hire someone to take them ahead to the next town. In this case, they hired the guest-house boss and his Hilux to transport their stuff to Dien Bien Phu. And they would do the same again for the Dien Bien-Moung Lay leg. I though it was a pretty nifty idea.

The Thai riders who called themselves simply ‘The Gang’.

The oldest member of the group was 76 years old! More power to him!

Next: 140 km to Oudomxai without pedalling a single stroke….

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Dien Bien Phu to Moung May; crossing into Laos. Day 10

After 347 km, a major portion of which was spent in the mountains, my legs were begging for a full day of rest. But besides the remnants of a battleground, Dien Bien had nothing else to offer. If I were French and my father, or grandfather, had been in the thick of the battle, it might have been different altogether. But I was not and I was more anxious to see Laos instead.

And so, taking the advice of the guest-house owner who confidently told me that it was flat all 37 km of the way to the border crossing at Tay Trang, I decided to take a chance and go for it. And I was really taking a chance, as the information I had on the Laos side was quite sketchy. I wasn’t even sure about the exact distance to the first town in Laos once I crossed the border. But the spirit of travel and adventure is such; the lure was too strong; and so, even though I wasn’t fully rested, I left Dien Bien for Laos.

The predictable scenery around Dien Bien continued to roll itself out as I cycled on in a straight line out of the city. Golden fields of ripe padi looked even more golden in the bright sunshine, while some squares were refreshingly green in their immaturity. Bicycles carrying all manner of goods and little children filled the road, hurrying to their destinations, as did the motorcycles.

Threshing padi by hand

Sickles in hand, Vietnamese young and old were busy harvesting padi, bent over in back-breaking pose; some of them in long rubber boots, and some of them looking a little too well-dressed for such menial tasks.  A closer look revealed the reason — they were in their 9-to-5 work-clothes, mostly uniforms, and they were obviously obliged to contribute to the family farm before going to work.

Just out of town, I stopped at a little Pho shop for breakfast. It was the kind of shop that appealed to me when I’m on the road — only locals. Here, the patrons all looked battle-hardened; most of them tanned, with coarse hands  and leathery skin, and dressed in clean but well-worn and faded clothes. a typical picture of an agrarian society.

The husband-and-wife team who ran the shop along with their daughter were very friendly. Usually, the less contact they have with tourists, the more friendly and honest they are; and these folks were no different, even taking time out to chat with me, asking me the usual questions. Of course, I don’t usually pay tourist rates in places like this.

The friendly couple who ran the Pho shop outside Dien Bien. The wife was shy about having her picture taken.

It's always steaming hot when it comes to Pho, and this version was one of the best I had tasted in Vietnam.

It was a real luxury cycling on the flat road leading out of Dien Bien. I figured I would be in Tay Trang in 3, maybe 4 hrs. I didn’t stock up on any food and only carried a 1.5 litre bottle of water, plus whatever was already in the bottle on the bike. It was after all, only 37 km, and international border crossings were normally busy places, which meant there would be food and drink.

Pancake flat, and only 31 km left.

I was wrong. On all accounts.

I had been suckered yet again. I guess the old adage about being bitten once wasn’t true after all. In my case, it was twice bitten, thrice shy.

At exactly 17 km out of Dien Bien Phu, where a huge cement plant was located, the road started climbing, albeit gently … at first. Then it climbed, and climbed, and climbed. What’s more, there were many 10% gradient sections as well.

Note: If I ever visit Dien Bien Phu again, history will record another great battle  — The Battle of Dien Bien Phu’s Guest-house Owner Versus The Malaysian Cycle-tourer. And the Malaysian would win too, no doubt about it.

Now I knew what he had meant when he gestured ‘flat all the way’. He meant until the road started climbing upwards, wherever that point was. How typically Vietnamese.

Well, nothing to do about it then. Just keep pedalling and hope it ends soon. It never did, of course. I was to climb all of 20 exhausting kms. At one point, when it hit one of the 10% gradient sections, I decided to walk and push the bike instead. I looked at the speedometer and it was registering the same speed as when I was just pedalling.

There was no song in my heart today.

All this while, it seemed like I was the only person using this road; no cars, no trucks, no motorcycles. There were a few farms here and there but not many farmers to be seen. It was too quiet for my liking. Could I be on the right road? According to my GPS, I was. The Tay Trang waypoint was ahead, and even the milestones indicated as such.

Finally, after I had almost run out of water, feeling totally exhausted and extremely hungry, I came upon a grand building at the top of a peak. It was the Vietnamese checkpoint at Tay Trang. But, curiouser and curiouser … there wasn’t a single soul around. Now I’m really spooked.

Nasty surprise #2 -- there were no humans and no food stalls; the Vietnamese checkpoint was deserted.

See you again?...not likely.

Then I noticed a sign on the side of the building that pointed down the empty road – ‘Tay Trang checkpoint’. Now, why would they do that? So I pushed on. Less than a km away, an old yellow building, and an arch that was unmistakeably the Vietnamese/Laos border crossing, came into view. The whole place was empty save for a Vietnamese immigration officer walking across the road to another smaller, official-looking building. He gestured for me to go in there, obviously to do the paperwork.

I was the only customer that afternoon, and it only took a couple of minutes to write my details into a big ledger; and then, a solid thump later, my passport was stamped and my sojourn in Vietnam was officially over.

A lone cow welcomed me to Laos as I walked my bike across the border. I ‘walked’ because the Vietnamese border guards insisted on it. Weird…what about cars, then? Do they have to push it across?

Nasty surprise #3 of the day. The beautifully sealed Vietnamese road came to an abrupt end at the arch, and a cross-country mountain biking trail took over.

2 km of easy downhill later, the official Souphone Laos checkpoint appeared. It was barely 3 months old when I arrived in October 08; impressive, too, given the condition of the road that led up to it.

As I cruised into the equally empty compound of the Laos checkpoint, I was met by a young man in shorts and T-shirt. He spoke reasonably good English and turned out to be an immigration officer. He asked if I needed a visa.  I said “No, I’m Malaysian … ASEAN”.

Working life seems to be very easy here. I asked where I could get water, not really hoping for anything more than that, and he pointed to a small hut just outside the compound. “There’s a woman there. She can’t speak English but you can buy food and water from her”, he added. I was elated…food at last. The mystery of the deserted Vietnamese building was also solved when he explained to me that eventually the Vietnamese will use the new building. At the moment they had taken over the old Laos checkpoint where I had just crossed 2 km ago.

Cafe Checkpoint Laos. The chap repairing a tyre tube is the immigration officer.

The owner was sleeping when I came knocking. After my new Lao-government friend translated my lunch requirements, she got down to work getting ready my instant noodles with an extra egg.

The dining area of the unpretentious cafe...

and, a few feet away, the proprietor's bed.

After lunch, and armed with new information on my next destination, I set off for Moung May about 25 km away. The good news — it’s all downhill and flat to Moung May. The bad news — it was more of the same cross-country trail I had just biked through. Some how I believed my new friend. However, the only thing he didn’t describe to me in detail was the condition of the road. Until now, I had only seen one other vehicle going the other way – a Toyota Hilux. Well, I was going to find out very, very soon.

The road was like this all the way downhill. With panniers and a handlebar bag, I couldn't let go of the brakes and enjoy the downhill...very frustrating.

Then it flattened out, and it started getting a little rutty and muddy.

Then a river appeared, with a flimsy bamboo bridge clearly meant for 2-wheelers and 2-legged creatures. Anything else with 4 wheels had no choice but to drive across the river. Now, I understand why there were so few vehicles on this road...

... this was 4-wheel drive country! Not for bicycles with panniers and slicks! And, worse, this was just mudpool #1...

It got muddier and muddier, and harder and harder to cross. At one mudpool, I had to unload the panniers, carry them across to dry ground, then came back for the bike. After this pic was taken, I fell into the mud while pushing my bike across the next one.

Adventure, yes. Endless mudpools, no. This wasn’t what I had in mind. I was feeling quite defeated by the time I crossed the 5th mudpool. According to the cyclocomputer, there was about 15 km more to go, and if it was dotted with rutted mudpools, I was done for. There was simply no way I could keep pushing a fully-loaded bike across them. I was very tired, hungry again, and I was at my wits end. There was only one thing left to do — pray.

Help came in the form of a trio of Chinese engineers who were building a small bridge across the river. At first I didn’t know they were Chinese and I tried to ask for help getting to Moung May. It was no use. I couldn’t understand Lao and he couldn’t speak English. Then, after a frustrating exchange, he blurted out in Mandarin. Suddenly, my very limited vocabulary of Mandarin came into play. “Ah, ni shi chung kuo ren?” Hey, I’m Chinese too! In the end, we managed to arrive at some kind of solution.

They had a truck which would be passing this way again on the way back to Moung May and I could hitch a ride on it. Perfect. What more could I ask for? I was done riding, and pushing, through mud for the day. While we waited for the truck, there was nothing to do except chat with the 3 Chinese gentlemen…and what a conversation we had. They were downright friendly. They were also finished for the day ( it was that late) which meant they could afford to chill out and engage in friendly banter as well. I’m very sure I have never spoken as much Mandarin in my life as I did that day. And those who know me know how limited my Mandarin is. But we all seemed to hit it off and had a great conversation. At the end, they knew where I came from, how much I paid for my air-ticket, how much my bike cost, how a GPS works, how many children I had and how old they were, and on and on and on.

But the one thing that really surprised them was when I told them that my ancestors came from Fujian, China. Suddenly, we were friends for life. They even treated me to some sugarcane, and later, a steamed dumpling, which they were having for dinner. One of them insisted I had one. The freshly-steamed dumpling was plain with no fillings, but it was tasty.

Chinese blood brother #1

Chinese blood brother #2

As the sun began to disappear into the horizon, the truck finally came. It carried a full load of river sand, about 8 Lao workers, and many large pieces of dried wood. In Lao, dried wood is like gold. It’s the only cooking fuel they can afford. Gas is only available in the cities.

Darkness settled over us very quickly and after they unloaded the sand and re-loaded the firewood, everyone was ready to go, including me and bike. My new-found Chinese friend told the driver, a compatriot of theirs, to send me to Moung May’s guest-house and, for good measure, he reiterated that my ancestors were from Fujian, China. Well, that sealed it for him, too — no letting down our own countrymen here. We set off for Muong May. Incredibly, the truck had no working headlights but the Chinese driver could actually see where he was going.

A few more rutted mudpools and several kms later, the truck stopped at a junction. The driver got down and told this me this was it, and that Moung May was just a little way ahead. I loaded up my panniers, fixed my trusty Cateye to my helmet and I made my way to town. It was pitch dark, but I could see clearly with the help of my light.

As I passed a few dimly-lit houses, I stopped to ask a Lao man where the guest-house was. He pointed down the road and I continued, reassured. And then, I came upon it, a large, brightly-lit bungalow with a sign that proclaimed it to be Amphon Guest House. The perimeter was all lighted up, too, and it was quite surreal; a gaudy structure among the ramshackle shanties that made up Moung May.

(pic taken the next day) Main street, Moung May. It looked more like a slum to me.

Hotel Amphon, the sore thumb in the midst of Moung May's squalid hovels

I heaved a huge sigh of relief as I cycled into the courtyard of the guest-house. The owner, who was sitting outside drinking tea, got up immediately to greet me when he saw me coming in, covered in black mud, and totally exhausted. He helped me with my panniers and, without another word led me to my room.

The dinner of sticky rice with boiled bamboo shoots and vegetable soup in a cafe by the river never tasted so good. Tomorrow was going to be a full rest day; waking up whenever I felt like it. It was a blissful feeling and I didn’t quite notice the black-out that occurred at 10pm just as I was drifting off…

Next: Idling in idyllic Moung May

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RIDE STATS:
Dien Bien Phu to Muong May, Laos – 65km
Total ascent -830m
Total descent – 895m
Max elevation – 1170m
Total distance to date – 412km

Dien Bien to Tay Trang,  international border crossing Vietnam- 37km (17km flat, then steep uphill all the way to Tay Trang)
Tay Trang to Souphone checkpoint (Laos border crossing) – 2km
Souphone to Moung May – 26km, downhill and flat, country road, 1 river crossing, many mudpools (especially after rains, no problem in dry weather), rough and bumpy on many stretches.

Moung Lay to Dien Bien Phu, in the footsteps of the Viet Minh. Day 9

Hotel Lan Anh was run by typical Vietnamese; which means they won’t pass up on any opportunity to squeeze whatever Dongs they can out of their guests. In this case, it meant expensive room rates coupled with expensive food. After last night’s costly dinner, I decided to see what the town had to offer for breakfast instead. I hadn’t seen many shops as I rolled into town the day before but I was sure the morning scene would be different.

At 6am, after loading up, and paying for my room, I headed out through the gates of the hotel — the sun had just cheerfully cleared the horizon; the air  was cool, and I had high hopes for another great day on the road.

A hundred metres from the hotel, I saw the first cafe, and as I rode up, I could see it was already busy with 2 customers tucking into their steaming hot Phos. There were 3 dogs tied up outside — and I thought the owners must be quite the dog-lovers. I parked my steed and stepped into the dark interior of the cafe. The proprietress gave me a friendly nod and, after acknowledging the other 2 guests, I pointed to their bowls of noodles and held up one forefinger. She smiled knowingly and disappeared into the adjoining kitchen.

It would seem that in Vietnam, it’s considered normal to add a little zing to your breakfast, usually in the form of rice wine. The 2 gentlemen below were doing just that and they were taking it very easy; constantly quaffing little tea-cups of rice-wine in between mouthfuls of noodles and what seemed to be a very serious conversation topic. As I sat down opposite them, they expectedly asked me to join them in their alcoholic carousal but I shook my head vigourously and gestured with my fists circling that I was cycling. I also enacted with my fingers extended in a flat palm how I would be moving in a zig-zag manner if I were to take up their offer. They laughed loudly and as the lady served me my noodles, they re-enacted the whole episode to her. More laughter … the mood was infectious, and that made me even more impatient to tuck into a hot meal.

As I took up a pair of ‘indisposable’ chopsticks (nobody disposed of disposable chopsticks in Vietnam; it just didn’t make economic sense), I took a whiff of the dark-coloured soup with familiar thin white rice noodles in it. I had never had such Pho before but as always, I was game for new flavours. I took a mouthful and thought ‘hey, it’s not too bad’, although this was the strongest-flavoured Pho I had ever tried yet. The meat was slightly tough to the bite and I wondered if this was a well-exercised kerbau kampong , or what we would call water buffalo.

And then, a horrible thought suddenly struck me … 3 dogs outside, one dog underneath the table even as we ate … could it be? Naaah… I paused and caught the attention of my fellow diners, pointed to my bowl and then pointed outdside and asked “woof, woof?”. They nodded with a smile and said “Tit Cho!” and gave a thumbs-up sign as well. My chopsticks frozed in mid-air for a few seconds…

The Viets hold the dogmatic view that canine cuisine makes them virile, among other things...

Ok… “stay cool”, I thought. I hadn’t quite planned for this, but I’d already had a few mouthfuls of noodles. So what to do? I looked at the bowl of Pho and thought the best thing to do would be … finish up the rest of the noodles la! Just don’t touch the meat. I quickly finished it, paid, and I was out of there in a flash. As I kicked off the bike stand, I saw the sign outside clearly for the first time — Tit Cho.

Nice doggies...

On a bike tour, one is never fully satiated when it comes to food, and plain noodles alone just won’t do. So I did the next sensible thing. I went back to expensive Hotel Lan Anh (like a dog with its tail tucked between its legs). The staff there was a bit amused to see me back again. I acted like nothing happened and casually asked if the kitchen was alreay open. They said ‘yes’, and I ordered a bowl of Pho Ga … with emphasis on the word ‘Ga’, or chicken, plus my customary cup of coffee. That wasn’t going to be enough though, so I asked them to prepare for me 3 hard-boiled eggs, to go.  As I paid for the expensive breakfast, the lady hotel-owner was suddenly very generous and gave me a few bananas, on the house. Well, extra food… great! Onwards to Dien Bien Phu!

Halfway to Dien Bien Phu.

Dien Bien, as most Vietnamese called it, was 108 km away. From all accounts, it promised to be another long and challenging day. As I left the town behind, the gradient dictated that I shift to a smaller gear. I settled down and mentally prepared for a long ride.

It turned out to be a 32 km climb, all the way to Ma Thi Do Pass. As I pedalled, I kept looking out for the dreaded 10% sign, but fortunately there were none. Anything but 10% I could handle with a smile. At Ma Thi Do Pass, it was downhill all the way to the town of Moung Cha where I stopped for a lunch of Pho (obviously) and iced coffee. It was high noon, it was hot, and it tooka great effort to tear myself away from my comfortable slouch and get back on the bike again. I had only done 47 km so I had to be cruel to myself …

It turned out to be an easy ride for the next 14 km until the rolling hills started again, and not all were gentle climbs either. At some places, the road even changed from smooth to bone-shakingly rough. At one point, it was literally a river-crossing, as a bridge was being built to replace the one that was probably washed away by floods.

A fresh landslide near Dien Bien being cleared. Notice the lady with her helmet sitting way up high?

4 days of mountains can take a toll one’s legs, and I was beginning to feel the fatigue and pain in my quads, calf muscles, triceps (from hours of holding on to the handlebar) and the most painful of all, my buttocks — not the muscles, but where the saddle meets pelvic bone. But I told myself, this was child’s play compared to what the Viet Minh went through as they prepared to do battle with the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1953.

As I neared Dien Bien, I had begun to recollect my visit to Hanoi’s military musuem and the ‘Battle of Dien Bien Phu’ AV show which employed an impressive diorama built on a low stage to tell the story. As the images came on screen, the lights on the diorama would light up and indicate the movement of both the French and the Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh army as they finally met in bloody confrontation that would last 53 days.

The French after their defeat. They were outnumbered 4 to 1.

The French had been confident of crushing the Viet Minh rebels but they underestimated the resolve and mental strength of their opponents. Over months, the Viet Minh had stealthily moved a massive amount of heavy artillery through the jungles and mountains up to the hills that overlooked Dien Bien. It was clearly a logistical nightmare, as there wouldn’t have been nice sealed roads like what I was riding through now.

As I rode up and down the hills to Dien Bien, I could not help thinking about the sheer guts and determination that they had to have in order to prepare for such a decisive battle. And here I was trying to deal with the pain of riding up a few steep hills on a fully-loaded bike with 2 panniers.

Official Viet Minh army issue footwear made from old tyres...clipless they were not.

The picture of Dien Bien Phu that presents itself to visitors today is a far cry from the badly scarred battleground in 1953. Most of it has been converted to padi fields although a portion of it has been retained for historical, and tourism, purposes.

The mountains near Dien Bien Phu

It's a long, straight and flat road that leads in, and out, of Dien Bien Phu.

Golden fields of rice being harvested. Some of these were fields of death in 1953.

As I rolled into town, dusk was beginning to settle over the skies. I was worn out and saddle-weary from 4 days of riding in the mountains and I could feel it in my body, which was pleading for a full day of rest. My dilemma — should I rest a full day here, or push on another 37 km tomorrow to Tay Trang, the international border crossing to Laos? I had no idea what the terrain would be like so I thought it would be wiser to ask the locals. When I asked the guest-house owner about it, he simply and very confidently swept the air with his palm down, indicating that it would be a flat ride. Fantastic, I thought. 37 km should take me no more than 3, maybe 4 hours max. So, Tay Trang it is. Tomorrow I would be in Laos — a different country, a different language and a supposedly friendlier people.

Next: Crossing the border into Laos

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RIDE STATS:
Muong Lay to Dien Bien Phu – 108 km
Total ascent – 1280m
Total descent – 940m
Total distance to date – 347 km

Muong Lay to Ma Thi Do Pass – 32 km uphill
Ma Thi Do to Muong Cha – 15 km downhill
Easy after Muong Cha until km 61, then rolling hills
Km 85-88, last uphill, rough road conditions
After km 88, downhill then flat all the way to Dien Bien Phu

Lai Chau to Moung Lay, undulating through hills and river. Day 8

Unless you’re tenting, your choice of accommodation as a cycle-tourer is often very limited; mostly because your day’s ride usually ends at a predestined town (or in some extreme cases, villages that comprise little more than clusters of wood and bamboo huts), and any further riding will land you in the middle of nowhere.

Lai Chau is not a small town but then, it has no redeeming features either. It’s sole claim to fame is that it switched names with Muong Lay ( so in actual fact, I was now in old Muong Lay, and making my way to the old Lai Chau). The Vietnamese government has embarked on a gargantuan hydro-electric project; as a result of which, many small villages and towns will be submerged underwater come 2010. Right now, the tides of change are sweeping across this part of northern Vietnam.

Wide 8-lane road in Lai Chau, an oddity by Vietnamese standards, especially for such a small town.

The new Lai Chau is abuzz with development. In Vietnam, this means mud and dust everywhere. As I rolled into town, the old road leading to it was being rebuilt and widened, and in some sections I was rolling through tyre-deep mud. Just outside of town, a new main road had just been completed, and spanking new government buildings took pride of place along it. Aparently, Lai Chau is now the new administrative centre for Lai Chau district.

I finally decided on a guest-house on the main street in the older side of town, an ugly purple building with fancy Roman columns. It was an air-conditioned room with TV (no cable though) for 170,000 Dong. Not cheap but then again there weren’t many choices either. I didn’t know it then, but a better alternative would have been to push on to Phong To, 30 km away.

The next morning, I didn’t feel like having breakfast in town so I bought 2 baguettes filled with some strange tasting  stuff, 2 packets of sticky rice wrapped with leaves (and, as is so common with Vietnamese food, porky strips with generous amounts of lard made up one of the fillings). In any case, Phong To was the next town so I could stop for food and drink.

The Vietnamese version of Chinese ‘chung’

Beans and very fatty pork were the usual fillings for this delicacy. Doesnt taste like anything Mom would make at home.

Beans and very fatty pork were the usual fillings for this delicacy. Doesn’t taste like anything Mom would make at home

Just out of Lai Chau, I came across 2 young buffalo herders…

one of whom started showing off his buffalo riding skills.

12 km of easy uphill followed by 26 km of easy downhill later brought me into the dusty town of Phong To. It wasn’t much to look at but at least it had a nicer guest-house than the one in Lai Chau. It promises to be a smooth ride through town in the months to come.

Phong To

The all-wood Hotel Lan Anh in Phong To that overlooks a river; it looks more like a jungle resort than a guest-house where I stopped for a quick meal of baguette and eggs, and coffee. I would be staying at their other identical-looking sister hotel in Muong Lay at the end of today’s ride.

From Phong To the terrain changes dramatically; the road meanders faithfully alongside the river, with limestone walls one side of the road and the river on the other. The road would also undulate the entire distance to Muong Lay.  Throughout most of the ride, I had the road all to myself, which I always consider to be a luxury when touring; there’s not much traffic to interfere with my communing with nature – and this, is nature at its rawest.

The only sounds you hear are your laboured breaths as you try to time it with every down-stroke of the pedal… rhythm is crucial for efficiency when you’re riding up inclines with a full load. The river would also sing its own song in tandem — roaring with impatience when it met with fast-flowing rapids, and gurgling serenely when it flowed into shallower waters.

Simply awesome…the road is just visible on the right bank, as it hugs both the river and the mountain sides.

Every corner would also open up new vistas. Sometimes the road would rise up to about 500 metres above the river and at times almost level with it. It was more like riding in a gorge — deep, rugged and incredibly beautiful; the river cutting through it at the bottom juxtaposed with limestone peaks soaring into the sky. This would go on and on for almost 70 km, all the way to Moung Lay. I wasn’t in a hurry, and somewhere in between, it became one of those moments when I was overwhelmed with God’s unsurpassed handiwork, and I would unashamedly burst out into song, glorifying Him. I didn’t care either who was listening or watching — and sometimes there was an unexpected audience which was startled by my spontaneous song of joy.

Let me unashamedly share with you the simple chorus of this favourite Chris Tomlin song, ‘How great is our God’ that was constantly in my heart as I rode 🙂 Those of you who know this song will know how I felt::

How great is our God,
sing with me
How great is our God,
and all will see
How great, How great
Is our God

Name above all names
You are Worthy of all praise
and My heart will sing how great
Is our God

By the way, if you really, really want to know how this song goes, click here to see Chris Tomlin perform his acoustic version

In some places, it would simmer down into quiet shallows…

and serene pools with cave-like recesses in the rocks

Arduous terrain, but the Hmong were even more persistent in taming the land to eke out a living.


Some were luckier with their lots

Soon, the winding, undulating road came to an abrupt end and I had to cross a bridge to get to the other side of the river where the road would continue in the opposite direction towards Moung Lay. The river was now on my right and I could see where I had just come from.

The sun was already low in the sky, and Muong Lay was not too far away. It was a sweet ending to another hard but rewarding day and I was looking forward to a good meal and a good night’s rest at Hotel Lan Anh. Muong Lay turned out to be even smaller than I had imagined. It was situated next to the river and all the buildings along the main street were one-storey, mostly wooden structures; and they all looked very, very old.

5 minutes after I rolled into the courtyard of the hotel, who would come in through the gates but Craig and Tina, the couple I had met 2 days ago in the Sapa-to-Lai-Chau leg. They had been dawdling behind me all this while.

Although Lan Anh was constructed in rustic Vietnamese style with an all-wooden structure, the walls were deceptively paper-thin. Later, I would hear the occupants of the other rooms ( that is, the 3 rooms, and their bathrooms, that shared the 3 walls of my room) so clearly there was practically no privacy at all – including the sounds of their ablutions! To compound it all, a karaoke session somewhere behind the hotel was carrying on in earnest, with some of the participants clearly having reached the bottom of their rice wine bottles.

Although warm and cosy, this USD10 room at Lan Anh hotel only provided a fan and TV (no cable) for creature comforts.

Thankfully, everyone, including the karaoke singers, opted to retire early that night. But then again, I was already well-prepared when it came to hitting the sack — I had 2 pairs of ear-plugs in my sleep arsenal; one was a plain pair, while the other was a heavy-duty type; not as comfortable as the plain ones but, when firmly in place, an elephant could snore beside me without waking me up.

Hotel Lan Anh is a nice guest-house. In fact, it’s the only one in town that’s decent enough for tourists. Apparently, there were some attractions worthwhile enough in the vicinity that tourists would stop by for a day or two, usually after checking out Dien Bien Phu, the next town on my list.

But being the only guest-house in Moung Lay, it also meant that they could afford to charge a premium, especially for their food and drinks. A plate of fried rice which normally costs 10,000 to 12,000 Dong was going for 3 times the price here! So, I decided that tomorrow, I would be having breakfast in town instead.

And what a breakfast it would turn out to be … I will never forget it for as long as I lived.

Next: Moung Lay to Dien Bien Phu, in the footsteps of the Viet Minh

—————————————————————————–

RIDE STATS:
Lai Chau to Moung Lay – 108 km
Total ascent – 790m
Total descent – 1455m
Total distance to date – 245km

Lai Chau to Phong To – 12km easy uphill, 26km downhill
Phong To to Moung Lay – 70km undulating all the way

Sapa to Lai Chau, through the highest pass in Vietnam. Day 7

Expectations were high as I woke up to very agreeable weather. It was as promised by the weatherman. Anyway, I reminded myself that even if it wasn’t , I’d have gone ahead to Lai Chau anyway. At this stage of the tour, my legs were still fresh (as was my butt) so, one extra day of rest was one day too many.

As I rolled out of the hotel, I remembered to stock up on fuel and water. From now on, it’s better safe than sorry, even if it meant extra weight. I bought some steaming hot, freshly-made sticky rice with corn in front of the market.  Crushed peanuts and sugar were spooned in generously for extra taste. Persimmons grown in Sapa were also thrown into the booty for good measure.

In this part of the world, the sun is up and about at 6am. So by 7, I was already on the road pedalling to my next destination — Tham Tron Pass, the highest pass in Vietnam, 15 km away and 2000 metres high. The ride was easy enough, gently undulating but dotted with the aftermath of numerous landslides.

They had all been cleared and must have happened a few weeks ago when Vietnam was hit by Mekkhala, a serious tropical storm that killed 10 people and laid waste to large swathes of land. I was to witness even sadder images of the destruction that followed in the wake of the storm in the days ahead — the remnants of entire villages wiped out by flash floods.

I was glad my tour started after the worst of the wet season had ended.

Just before I reached the pass, I had my first encounter with an overly friendly Vietnamese. Replying to my ‘hello’ with enthusiasm, he started running along with me and, with a big smile, indicated that he would love for me to go to his house around the corner for some alcohol and tobacco.  I politely declined, but he became more insistent … to the point where he crossed the road and grabbed hold of my handlebar, and repeated his thumb-in-the-mouth and bamboo-pipe-puffing gestures.

I could smell the heady rice wine from his breath. This guy was getting out of hand, and I was ready to give him a blast of my wife’s pepper spray that I kept handy in my shorts pocket for such occasions but, thankfully for him, he restrained himself and finally let go of my bike, disappointed.

My enthusiastic Vietnamese friend who wanted to take me home.

A little later, as I stopped to take a break, 2 cycle-tourers came into view, obviously from Sapa as well. Craig and Tina from Canada and New Zealand respectively. What struck me most was not the fact that they had caught up with me even though they started an hour after me. It was their bikes ; although they had planned to cycle to Vietnam and Laos, they didn’t bring their own steeds; they bought off-the-rack Vietnamese bicycles instead.

The gearing was rather limited but their enthusiasm were not. I would run into them a couple of times again before I reached Oudomxai, but clearly they had to work a lot harder given their choice of equipment. I guess they didn’t want to be saddled with the burden of extra baggage flying in and out of the country.

Crazy Craig and tenacious Tina. Both would pedal all the way to Vientiane on their limited-gearing Vietnamese bikes. Their backpacks were simply tied down to the rear racks and, for hydration, Camelbak bladders in the front basket did the trick.

One sported a rear derailleur while the other used an internal-gearing type of hub.

2 km from Tham Tron Pass, I rode past another tourist site — Silver Falls. Although it was quite high, it didn’t impress me enough to explore it. Anyway,  I’d seen more impressive waterfalls back home in Malaysia. So, a quick shot to document the moment and I was on my way again.

A short climb later, I arrived at Tham Tron Pass. Actually, it’s nothing more than the peak of a mountain top, and the only attraction here were 2 food-stalls. Their menus were the same — hot tea and bbq’ed meat, potatoes and eggs. The scenery, however, was quite splendid. It was misty and cold, too, with a gusty wind that chilled me to the bone very quickly. I was torn between the 2 ladies running the stalls, as they were obviously competing for my attention.

As I walked near to one of the stalls, the owner poured out a small thimbleful of tea and bid me sit and drink and that, more less, sealed my choice. I sat down by the warm fire of the charcoal stove and enjoyed the steaming hot tea. Feeling a bit peckish, I helped myself to some sweet potatoes. Hot drinks and hot food coupled with a friendly smile can do wonders for the soul.

The view from Tham Tron Pass; I could already see sections of the 25km of winding road snaking away into the distance.

Cafe Tham Tron Pass; last F&B stop before the town of Tham Duong at the end of the downhill.

Riding downhill is always exhilarating. Riding 25km of steep and non-stop downhill, with plenty of  sweeping corners to keep you on the edge of your saddle, and with striking scenery as a glorious backdrop, is an adrenaline rush. Behind me was Mt Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam that’s accessible only by serious trekking. The peak was covered in clouds and looked very imposing. I put on an extra sweater, zipped it all the way up to the gills and, with my Buff pulled up around my face and ears to keep warm, I set off for the  lush valley below.

At the bottom, terraced rice fields once again dominated the scenery. The river that flowed through the valley was sparkling in the sunlight as it cascaded over boulders and stones. I felt such a sense of awe and stupefied wonder as I paused to absorb it all in. The mountains were now behind me in all its majestic glory, the peaks of which pierced the clear blue skies.

All I could think of at that moment was “It would be some ride going up in the opposite direction”. The ride from Lao Cai to Sapa cannot rival this side of the mountain for its sheer splendour and raw beauty, not to mention the steep gradient; so I was glad I didn’t have to attempt scaling it in reverse.

The water was strikingly clear and clean; nothing like the ruddy, muddy Mekong.

On the other side of this small bridge, Hmong kids in all their naked innocence, gambolled in the river with unbridled laughter and happiness. They waved to me as any child would. I was just another curious passer-by, who would be gone from their world in an instant. I almost wanted to join them.

Some Hmong believed that cameras could capture the soul of the subject. Sometimes you would have to wait until the last minute, then whip out your camera and take a few shots before they had time to turn away. This group wasn't too amused at my guerilla shooting style.

The descent finally came to a climactic end as I rolled into the town of Tham Duong. The incline started again. Thankfully, it was undulating climbs and didn’t require the granny as much. Shifting to smaller gears, I pushed on at a decent pace for 38 km before the road levelled out near the day’s destination of Lai Chau.

Next: Lai Chau to Muong Lay

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

RIDE STATS:
Sapa to Lai Chau – 78km
Max altitude – 2007m
Total ascent – 1245m
Total descent – 1735m
Total distance to date – 114km

Sapa to Tham Tron – 15km gradual uphill
Tham Tron to Tham Duong – 25km steep downhill, many sharp bends
Tham Duong to Lai Chau – 24km gradual uphill, last 14km to Lai Chau easy downhill.


Chilling out in cool Sapa, and a forced rest day. Day 6

Sapa looks like any other small town in Vietnam — devoid of any redeeming features except for the uncharacteristically Vietnamese Catholic church in the town square, somewhat commanding in its presence. Flanking it are the numerous stalls that cater to tourists – selling everything from roasted potatoes to fake, China-made Columbia trekking pants.

The tallest building in Sapa

The evening of my arrival in Sapa brought in an unwelcome visitor — the rain. It rained incessantly throughout the night, and throughout the rest of the next day. Although I was itching to get back on the saddle for a highly anticipated 2nd day of riding in the mountains, I had no choice but to hole up in my room for most of the dreary, wet and cold day. In between, I walked about the town, eating Pho and fried rice, drinking coffee, and the occasional beer.

The real draw of Sapa is not the town itself; it’s the guided treks to the terraced rice-fields of the Hmong tribe, the Hmong markets and the handmade Hmong souvenirs. But like any popular tourist attraction, it can get a little crowded in the padi fields, and that’s not even counting the numerous Hmong peddlers out in their typically black Hmong finery — as expected of them by the tourists who have travelled far to catch a glimpse of native life that has mostly remained unchanged for hundreds of years.

One of the many food stalls in the square -- I was attracted by the variety of meat and took this shot. When I showed the result to the subject herself, she almost fell off her chair with laughter at her silly, caught-off-guard pose.

Tasty little morsels of pigeons ready for the BBQ pit

Young and old, these Hmong ladies — some as cute and as young as 10 — have been trained by their seniors to latch on to tourists who have shown even the slightest interest in their wares. It’s not surprising that, with so much ‘training’ and exposure, you hear fluent English being spoken by these street-wise kids. Many a tourist have been taken in by these cutesy creatures and even the steeliest resolve not to give in has melted in the wake of “Buy from something from me, buy something from me?”

Shot from the balcony of my room...a bunch of Hmong kids 'making friends' with a tourist couple

Another effective tack by these girls is to ‘act’ as an informal guide, and pretending to want to learn English by speaking with you (well, I guess at some stage they really did do that, but I would think the general flow of conversation would be the same with any tourist). Once they built a certain amount of rapport with you, they just reel you in — hook, line and sinker.

Definitely sisters...possibly twins

Babies make very good props

Waiting for the rain to ease up in front of the busiest section of Sapa, the market.

As in every other country, the market is the place to head to if you want to see real culture.

As enterprising as they come....first they notice you hovering nearby with your camera...

then she sees you shooting, and she'll go...

"1 dollah, 1 dollah" So much for mesmerising the tourist. I hope she doesn't get internet-savvy soon and see her picture here.

The best sticky rice I ever had in Vietnam was from this lady just outside the market entrance -- steaming hot sticky rice mixed with corn; served with finely crushed peanuts and sugar -- absolutely delicious on a cold morning.

The rustic wooden container is carved out of a trunk.

North to Lao Cai and upwards to the highlands of Sapa. Day 4 & 5.

The city of Hanoi had had its fill of me. In truth, I was never really a dutiful tourist. I did not do the full rounds of tourist sites; I didn’t pay my respects to Uncle Ho’s fantastically preserved body, I didn’t contribute anything to the ‘shopping’ economy (I was after all, a cycle tourer and no one expects you to come back with souvenirs when your panniers are somewhat limited in luggage space)… I did however, learnt a great deal about the Vietnamese’s prowess in winning a war at the military museum.

The real cycle tourer' s bike at the military museum. I wonder if that's a Brooks saddle?

370kg!... and here I was thinking how heavy my packs were.

Happy pack-cyclists of the Viet Minh enroute to decimating the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu. It didn't look like they were rolling on sealed roads either.

To get to Lao Cai on the Chinese border, I had to catch the overnight train. Unfortunately for me, all the soft sleepers were sold out, so I had no choice but to settle for a ‘soft seat’ ticket which I bought from a travel agent in Hanoi. Arriving at the train station, which was overflowing with passengers, I wasn’t prepared for the stress that the unfriendly station staff put me through.

First, I wasn’t allowed to push my bike through the main lobby. I had to go behind to a locked gate where goods were unloaded onto the platform. After getting the attention of one of the ladies, she opened the gate for me and promptly asked for my ticket, as well as that of my bike’s. I told her I hadn’t got one yet. Comrade Train Station Officer pointed to the ticketing hall on the other side and I had to push my bike out again.

OK…stress level now up 2 notches.

There was no way I could leave my bike outside while I dashed in to buy a ticket. And then, I heard Manglish being spoken. Aha, Malaysians! I saw 4 young men who were obviously doing the Sapa thing standing around waiting to board the train. After establishing our Malaysian ties, I promptly asked them to keep an eye on my bike while I went to get a ticket. “No problem, go ahead”. I went straight to a ticket counter and told Comrade Ticket Seller what I needed. In a most unhelpful manner, he straightaway pointed to the main lobby where I was just shooed out of a while ago.

Stress level now up 4 notches.

So back to the lobby I went to look for the conductor of this musical chairs game. She told me, in whatever little English she could, that I had to get a ticket from the ticket hall, and then she turned and walked away. Oooooh….

Stress level now up 6 notches.

I could really feel it this time. It was simmering just below the boiling point where the steam was building up its pressure, ready to blow. I was in no mood for comradeship this time, not the least with self-serving bureaucrats. I walked back to where I had just come, passing the 4 nice Malaysian boys and assuring them that I would only be a minute. I went straight to the counter and in my most authoritative voice, firmly told Comrade Tiket Seller, “Ticket for bicycle!” a few times while showing the universal 2 clenched fists in motion sign for bicycle. I was prepared to stay put and not budge until I got what I wanted… he must have sensed my frustration. Finally, he got the message and wrote ‘30,000’ on a piece of paper. It was all over in seconds … the pressure gauge eased up immediately, and I strolled out coolly with ticket in hand.

In typical badly-treated-tourist fashion, I related the sorry episode to the 4 Malaysian boys who nodded emphatically in agreement. After chatting with them a little, and after telling them about my touring plans, they were fascinated and surprised that I was doing it solo. I felt quite famous too, when they asked to take a photograph with humble old me (if you’re reading this boys, I’m still waiting for a copy of that pic to slot it in here 🙂

The 10-hr train ride to Lao Cai was pretty uneventful — well, if you can call it uneventful when 2 seats in front of me was Mr. Fidgety, a young man travelling with his mother and girlfriend, and who never seemed to sit still for more than 5 minutes; walking up and down, exploring other cars, chatting with people; eating, eating, eating…even at 3 in the morning. And then there was Mr. Lecher, clearly a Chinese national on his way home to the motherland — he was unashamedly parading up and down in his suave-looking leather jacket, staring hard at all the girls within the vicinity.

Mr.Fidgety is seen here getting his 40 winks; head on the arm-rest and legs wrapped up in the curtain on the window. A few minutes after this shot, he was up and about again. Mr. Lecher is behind him by the window.

At 6.15am, the sun was already up and the day looked promising. The train was rolling in to Lao Cai, and I was excited at the thought of finally getting in some serious saddle time; and all uphill at that, too.

Lao Cai is a non-descript border town – China on one side of the river and Vietnam on the other. It was warm, humid and very dusty. Outside the train station, the thought of hot Vietnamese coffee and some food pulled me into a cafe that promised such victuals. After a cup of hot, sweet, rich Vietnamese coffee and banana pancake, I sat back with a satiated sigh. Life was good. My adventure was about to begin.

But before that, there was something else I had to do — I rode the 3 km to the Chinese border, just for the heck of it.

Lao Cai train station

I just had to take this shot of my bike ... on the border of China and Vietnam.

...and one of me . Yea, you'd look this good too after a 10-hr, overnight train ride with almost no sleep.

A glimpse of capitalistic leanings of communist China -- the billboard is of one 'Spider King Group of companies', a big-time shoe manufacturer. A quick browse of their website revealed an interesting proclamation: "Standing on the new starting point, Spider King People are making effort to develop “SPIDER KING” as the first international brand with full of passion and the spirit of innovation and never satisfaction".

With that out of the way, I was ready to ride. The destination was the highland town of Sapa; made popular by the French colonial masters as a cool retreat to escape the searing heat of Vietnamese summers.

Highway 4D to Sapa. Fom Lao Cai it's only 38km...should be easy enough, like riding up Fraser's Hill...or so I thought.

The first few km were easy enough. That was when I committed mistake #1. I did not bother to stock up on riding fuel, thinking that there would be stalls along the way. After all, Sapa is a popular destination. How wrong I was. As the day drew on, the weather improved. For cyclists, this is not necessarily a good thing. Clear skies equal hot sun. Halfway through the ride, and after the banana pancake had long since disappeared into the bowels, I felt the first pangs of hunger. The scenery was getting better and better, but no stalls came into view.

The Hmongs were clearly animists in their religious outlook, as can be seen from this strange snake sculpture on top of a little house of worship

Even more strange were these pair of bamboo smoking pipes. It seemed to be an offering for someone who met his end on this stretch of the road. Spooky...

Then came my first encounter with Hmong natives — Black or Red Hmong, I had no idea. But it was a tiny hut and it sold canned drinks and some stuff that passed off as food. The mother, sitting outside, was intent on her embroidery piece, no doubt to be sold to some tourist at Sapa. The daughter was in charge. I picked up a can of tamarind juice, and some biscuits.

The shelf in front is all there is to the stall's offerings.

The biscuit looked suspiciously well-past its expiry date, but I didn't care. It was food...and yes, it did taste expired; and dry and insipid, too. The warm, overly sweet tamarind juice didn't go down too well either.

Inside the hut that served as a stall, the younger brother was hard at work, pounding dried maize in a gunny sack to separate the corn from the stalk.

Inside the hut, the younger brother was hard at work, pounding dried corn in a gunny sack to separate the golden seeds from the stalk.

The pristine valley is brought to life by pristine rivers -- crystal clear and bubbling with cheerful songs over smooth rocks and boulders.

As the day wore on, the incline began to unmistakeably inch steeper and steeper. Fraser’s Hill this ain’t. Not when it’s 10% gradient. At one point, a Hmong boy, who happened to be on the way home, ran alongside me for a good km or so. And he wasn’t even breathing hard! That little act of his charged me up (in fact, throughout the rest of the trip, I would look forward the countless number of kids who kept me energised with their high-fives, ‘hellos’ and ‘Sabaidees’)

The little Hmong runner.

The last 7 km or so were the hardest. Tired, hungry and already half-burnt to a crisp, I struggled at the incessant 10% climbs. It was quite relentless; it was quite clearly time for some drastic measures. Plodding along, I waited patiently until I heard the sound — a  heavily-laden truck in bottom gear inching up the same steep climbs as me. As the truck went passed me, I grabbed on to the rope-ends of the  tail-gate and hung on for a free ride. Although it was only clocking 10kph, it was far better than my miserable 5kph. I hung on to the truck until it reached a short flat and I reluctantly let go. The ‘10% gradient’ signboards were still dotting the roadside, so I waited for saviour #2.

I didn’t have to wait long. This time I hung on until almost at the top. My arms were tired, even with constant switching from left to right, but it was worth it. Sapa town was flat, cool and most of all, there were plentiful cafes and food stalls to replenish my depleted glycogen levels. I wasn’t up to checking out guest-houses so  I simply checked into the first one that I thought was OK, and which only charged a reasonable USD6 for a room. It also reeked mildly of urine going up the stairs, and the windows in the room would leak when it rained later. And, when asked if they provided Internet access (seeing as there was a PC in the lobby), they said ‘yes’. Later, when i came down to send an email to Lilian, my wife, they said “Err… no Internet..cannot”.

That was mistake #2 — NEVER believe the Vietnamese guest-house owner when they say Internet and cable TV is provided. Check to see that there really is a connection, and check out the TV channels so that later when you’re ready to hunker down for the night with Star Movies, it won’t be Vietnamese soap opera instead.

The lacework on top of the bed are mosquito nets, not honeymoon-hotel decorations.

Next, exploring Sapa…

RIDE STATS:
Sat 4 Oct 2008

Lao Cai to Sapa – 38km
Total ride time – 5hrs
Total ascent – 1430m
Total descent – 50m
Total to date – 38km

Lao Cai to Sapa – Uphill all the way, last 8km steep. No decent food stops along the way until almost near Sapa.

A city called Hanoise, pt 1. Days 1-3

Hanoi assaults the senses like no other city I’ve ever been to in Asia. It is anything but a quiet city; and yet, it is an orderly chaos that rules the streets. If you’ve been in one, you know exactly what I mean. If you haven’t, well…you’ll need to experience it first hand to appreciate the fear that freezes you to a spot in the middle of the street, not daring to cross because the stream of motorcycles, cars, trucks and cyclos just never seem to end.

So how does one cross a typically busy Vietnamese street?

You just do it. You would also need to ditch your mother’s advice about first looking left and right. You then step away from the pavement and onto the road — and the traffic simply avoids you as you make your way across. That’s all there is to it. I’ve tried it on foot and on my bike and its quite a thrill the first few times you do it. After that, and after riding WITH the traffic, I decided to try what every sensible Vietnamese does.

I rode INTO the traffic. The result is not pretty; with the instant chorus of a thousand horns erupting into your ear.

This is actually a less busy street...

Mind you; you only do this very, very briefly to get to the other side. Actually, I had no choice – I’m a right-hand drive Malaysian road-user. I lost track of the number of times I slowly but surely drifted to the wrong side of the right side of the road. But the beautiful thing with Hanoians is that nobody ever loses their temper. They just honk at you and they carry on with their lives.

How can anyone not love the energy of this city? The people are so animated in whatever they do. I love the colour on the streets, I love the even more vibrant colours that clothed some of the Vietnamese women — fashion faux pas be damned.

Matching pants and seat? She probably has a wardrobe of scooter seat-covers.

Hoan Kiem, Lake of the Restored Sword, adjacent to the Old Quarter, and a popular hangout for locals.

There weren't tourists. They were a group of all-female professional photographers who would capture your digital image for a price if you didn't have a camera handy.

The living takes great pains to ensure that the dead are well-remembered.

Ladders made from one of nature's most versatile materials.

Even weighing machines come to you. You'd always know when one was coming your way -- they all have built-in speakers that only played Mozart.

And this was only my first day in Hanoi. At the airport, I had acted the dutiful tourist, paying USD15 for me, my bike and my panniers to be transported by a cramped-to-the-brim mini-van that dropped me off at a USD10 hotel room (which I thought was cheap, from what I saw of the photographs) that I booked from an agent of sorts in the airport’s arrival hall. It was raining and I had no wish to ride 45 km to the city, then start looking for the Old Quarter (where I intended to stay), and then look for a hotel.

It was hard to believe a room this nice was only going for USD10...untill the jackhammer next door started its jarring song

It's hard to believe a room this nice was only going for USD10...until the jackhammer next door started its jarring song

I realised why USD10 got me such a newish, nice and clean air-conditioned room complete with cable TV and free Internet downstairs. It was 4 flights of stairs up and … next door was a 4-storey buildiing under construction. Welcome to make-a-fast-dong-when-you-can-Hanoi.

The next day, I checked out when i found new digs smack in the heart of the action in the Old Quarter. It was a small hotel; the room was clean, old, but not run-down. Even the taps looked like they had been used since French colonial days. It looked liked how a room in the Old Quarter should look like. Charming.

Next: The mystery of the skinny Vietnamese…