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.

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.

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…


A city called Hanoise pt 2 – The skinny Vietnamese. Days 1-3

In the short time that I spent in Vietnam, I observed that there wasn’t a single fat Vietnamese to be found. Well, the Viets are, after all, quite an industrious lot — a mostly agrarian society that gleans a hard life out of its fertile ground. Generally, the people that I’ve seen are lean and scraggy but, I was more intrigued by another equally emaciated icon — Vietnamese buildings.

Quirky by most Asian standards, Vietnamese buildings tend to compensate for their constricted girths by going deep and tall instead. So what kept them from going wide? A little research yielded some very interesting facts.

Back in the old days, the original buildings were little more than hovels and makeshift stalls. Once they laid claim to the piece of land, they just stayed put…and so did everyone else. And as they prospered, and families grew bigger, the only way to house them all was simply to build up and in.

I suspect it became part of the Vietnames culture after a while. Thin is in. But then, so were the gaudy, heady colours that they were sometimes swathed in. They’ve learnt how make kitsch kitsch-ier still … like this one here, with its purple eyesore of a paintwork complemented by Roman columns (you would almost expect to see a statue of a cherubim peeing into a pond inside). But … who am I to judge another’s taste?

Next: The delicious streets of Hanoi…