Passengers in Vietnam

For this ninth video episode, we’ve put together the best of our Vietnamese adventures. From Ninh Binh with friends to Hanoi, via the island of Cat Ba, the roads were hectic but still charming! Not to mention the highlight of the show: the packaging of our cycles before we fly to… Japan 🙂 Let’s go!

Xe Dap is not dead!

After 100 days of travel from Singapore, 4130km of pedaling and a good thousand by train or bus, we arrived in Hanoi on September 26 🙂 So many paths and so many great moments in the head on bicycles!

Since we entered Vietnam 15 days ago, we have had a few more great moments on our bikes. On the small roads of Ninh Binh, its canals adjoined by ducks and its hypnotic hills surrounded by rice paddies, with the friends Caro and Vianney. In Cat Ba too, where the hilly coastal road has plunged us back into the maritime atmosphere of Indonesia or Thailand.

Cat Ba Coastal Road

But let us be frank, and careful for those who would read us with the aim of crisscrossing Vietnam on two wheels (non-motorized): the country, or at least its north-central part, is far from being a paradise for cyclo-travellers. Motor vehicles, especially trucks, honk their horns for nothing, double without any visibility, even if they fall back on our wheels, while scooters insert themselves with anarchy on the main road, consult their smartphone while driving or stop unexpectedly…

Bikes stored in the alleys of Ninh Binh

Of course the volume of vehicles is the main cause but we still see a clear difference with the previous countries: the risk is everywhere and the Vietnamese are tough on the road.

We especially regret that the bicycle, which has long been used by sellers [1], has became so minor. The electric scooter is fashionable but does not solve congestion or danger. In Ninh Binh, Sabine our host explained to us: motorbikes are a sign of richness, the bike of poverty. So it disappears from the urban landscape. However, there are still a few shops that would allow everyone to equip or maintain their bike: they repaired Sylvain’s pedal box in 1/4 hour for 8 euros!

Bike shops in Hanoi

As for the collective bus in Hanoi, yet cheap (0.3 euros per ride) and quite reliable, it is far from being full except during rush hour.

In short, here we regret more than ever our European bike paths and the cycling rights acquired in pain by the French associations. About this topic, there is still time to fill the bike barometer of the FUB [2]. Let’s fight to conserve and extend rights, perhaps such beautiful countries like Vietnam will take inspiration from its to give the little queen a place of choice in an ultra-motorized urban landscape.

[1] See about the beautiful exhibition: “Street vendors and the cries of the street in Hanoi” at the French Institute

[2] Public inquiry of the French Federation of Bicycle Users, open until 30 November 2019

Cliché from Cat Ba

Cat Ba is the gateway to the famous Halong Bay and its wildest little sister Lan Ha. It is therefore a tourist hotspot, with all its contrasts and excesses. While the surroundings are wild, mountainous and populated by the last langurs monkeys, the city and its waterfront look more like Canet-en-Roussillon, with its ugly hotel buildings and its uncharming bars.

In the harbour, the boats wet while waiting for a next trip between the karst islets.

Thanks to Charles for this illustration!

Soundscapes of Laos and Vietnam

Update – 18 September 2019

In the mazes of the colonial alleys of Luang Prabang hide primary schools where children give themselves to heart 🙂

It’s recess at Luang Prabang School

In Luang Prabang always, it’s a day of celebration! Not everyone is interested in boat racing, some prefer to share a meal with friends or family.

Neighbours’ Day Version Laos

In the evening it is a completely different melody that one hears as you listen to the temples.

Buddhist prayers at nightfall in Luang Prabang

Music accompanies us everywhere on our bike ride. Sometimes in karaoke or just in the background of restaurants, but always kitsch!

Big sound in a roadside restaurant

As we approach the villages, we slow down and enjoy the scenes of life under the bewildered eyes of the locals.

A village crossing on Highway 1c

On September 7, we arrive in Vieng Xai. 45 years ago, the town was the stronghold of the Pathet Lao, a communist paramilitary organization fighting the Americans alongside the Viet Minh from 1964 to 1973. The city is surrounded by multiple cellars where the inhabitants took refuge during the bombings. During the visit to the cellar of Mr Kaysone Phomvihane (Secretary-General of the Party, who later became President), our guide recounts:

“In here, special, we have “air tight bomb shelter room” … So this room was used sometimes when the Americans used to[drop bombs] onto Vieng Xai. Mr Kaysone with his family came to stay here, crossing the door but he can’t open it. He used this air pump to [bring the air inside and this filter for dust and chemical]…”

Explanations of the guide in an anti-bombing cellar of Vieng Xai

Arriving in Vietnam, in Mai Chau, we discover the festival of mid-Autumn and its parades of dragons in the schools and shops of the city. Every year, it coincides with the end of the rice harvest.

Dragon dance on mai Chau’s main street

Finally, further north in Moc Chau, we visit huge tea fields. Here, dozens of women hand-pick the precious leaves while chatting!

Tea picking at Moc Chau

Nung, Song, Sam…

For this last article about Laos, we wanted to present some numbers that have marked us or symbolize our passage:

0 like…

… the number of punctures on roads that do not have a good reputation. If potholes are a real permanent danger (we warn each other when they approach), we were pleasantly surprised by the condition of the existing bitumen. And/or the quality of our 4 new Schwalbe tires!

29 as…

… years since the country was officially opened to tourism. Yes, it was not until 1990 that the Democratic People’s Republic of Laos opened its doors to foreigners, after more than 50 years of French protectorate, a Japanese invasion, 9 years of secret war with the United States (1964-1973) and 15 years of strict communism. So inevitably, Laos has kept an authenticity, a raw and spontaneous character that made us fall under its charm. By bicycle, we crossed dozens of traditional villages, with raised wooden houses so atypical open on the main street, looms curled in a recess and countless gallinaceans. All of this devoid of frills for foreign visitors (supermarkets, distributors, bars…), it is rare and appreciable in 2019.

Traditional bamboo house

44 as…

… the number of rowers per boat at the Luang Prabang Boat Festival. We had the chance to attend: this race takes place every year at the end of the monsoon. Each village on the Nam Kha River, a tributary of the Mekong River, participates in the competition. The boats are made during 1 year in Buddhist monasteries, if possible from a single tree. It is above all a great popular festival where beer Lao flows afloat!

120 like…

… the longest distance travelled in one day by bike, from Luang Prabang to Muang Nambak. Let’s be honest, it was a nice buse, especially since China is building in this area a huge hydroelectric dam synonymous with many trucks on the road. But it is sometimes the “game” by cyclo-hiking to find a nice village-stage for the night, join a beautiful road (the fabulous 1c that we highly recommend) or avoid bad weather.

Chinese dam under construction

365 as…

… the number of Laotians who die per year still today as a result of the explosion of a cluster bomb. These bombs, dropped in complete dysproportion by the United States during the Vietnam War, are sought and demined daily by various associations such as Humanity-Inclusion (formerly Handicap International). COPE works to ensure a future for the many injured and amputees.

Bomb crater in Vieng Xai

660 as…

… the kilometres of buses travelled at night between Paksé and the capital Vientiane. With a little apprehension for our frames in the hold, the ride finally went very well for them as for us.

800 like…

… our budget on the spot in euros for 1 month and for two.

1000 and 1 like…

… the amount of “Sabaidee” (Hello) chanted with smiles by the children on the road. In a country with a tormented recent history, it is a real joy to see the new generation so curious!

Generations of Lao women

1100 as…

… the total of the kilometers cycled on the territory, in the province of Champassak to the south, from Vientiane to Louang Prabang (the famous Route 4c), then to the northeast towards Vietnam. Vertiginous roads that allowed us to fully appreciate the local landscapes. Terrace rice fields, banana groves and above all bamboo forests have followed one another, all in extraordinary shades of green characteristic of the rainy season.

Tiered rice fields along Highway 1c

About bamboo, we discovered its importance in local life and the multiplicity of uses of the plant: baskets, clons and braided walls of houses, tube for cooking with the egg,breathing tube, musical instrument, food… That’s crazy! We recommend this short video of the French Development Agency whose action we discovered in Vientiane and which works precisely in the region of Houaphan on the sustainability of bamboo forests:

4c in the lead!

With a title like this, one would expect a bad climbing article. In the lead? 4c? Usually this rating is synonymous with first experience of rock climbing rather than exploit. But in Laos, road 4c from Kasi to Pong-Dong is not equipped with spits or ropes. Rather asphalt, a lot of gravels and as climbers pick-up trucks, white minivans of tourists, overloaded trucks and… two bicycles!

23rd of August 2019, in good mood and playful by the incredible environment of the region, we decide to tackle the road bis. No, no, not Highway 13 supposed to allow the drivers most in a hurry to reach Louang Prabang without a hitch. The other, 4c. Yan and Brieke, our wonderful Dutch Warmshowers hosts from Vientiane, had advised us, for its wonderful pass, so let’s go!

Rice fields, at the foot of the mountains

We start smoothly, in the middle of green rice fields and crossing two or three peaceful villages. In the distance, the future Vientiane-Kunming highway (understand: the local pharaonic Chinese construction site) escapes into the heart of the mountain. Its tunnels are barely dug and workers are numerous on the edge of its roadway under construction. On our side, we begin to meander to the village of Ban Thong Muead. Curves are rare and our 15 kilos of luggage combined with a slope close to 10% require us to create laces. We laugh, we keep our spirits up and we climb like snails. The rain, at first just a fog, begins to fall massively. The day before, we had met a fellow Spanish cyclist who, clumsily, asked us: “And you? Are you
in holidays?” Hell no, cycling isn’t just a vacation 😉

Waterfall and fog

It took us 4 hours to overcome the 20km and 1500m elevation. It’s so far from the stratospheric speeds of carbon bikes on alpine roads. But no matter the records, it’s a completely different accomplishment to reach the pass with our “shell”, so far from home and together!

Holy view at the pass!

We make a break for lunch : noodles and soda (for want of better) at the pass and start a magnificent descent, punctuated by some impromptu hills that end up consuming our thighs. The valley reopens, the sky too and we reach Namuang Gnai at 4pm, the brakes warm and head full of landscapes! The Guesthouse is simple but green and welcoming, tomorrow we still have 65km of falling bumps to arrive in Luang Prabang.

Laotian mountain snake

Tired but happy, I reread these lines of Paul Fournel (“Besoin de vélo”, Seuil, 2001): “There is an animal relationship on the bike to the world: the mountains that we see are to climb, the valleys are to be descended, the shadows are made to hide and to rest. To be in the landscape, in its heat, in its rain, in its wind, is to see it with other eyes, it is to permeate it in itself in an instinctive and profound way. The mountain that stands before me is not a mountain, it is first of all a hill to climb, an ordeal, a doubt, a worry, sometimes. At the top, it is a conquest, a lightness.”

Border lines

Borders are an inexhaustible topic of discussion for all long-haul travellers. Before we left and since we were in Southeast Asia, we read and re-read dozens of tips, tricks, warnings about this or that change of country. So here, after more than two months on the bike, in the chronological sense, our humble experience on the subject. Scoop in the key!

Singapore🇸🇬-Malaysia🇱🇷: Easy busy!

  • Place of passage: Johor Bahru
  • Date: June 18, 2019
  • Visa cost: €0
  • Duration: 30 days

The approach route is quite simple, we double dozens of trucks at a standstill and then we put in line with scooters and motorcycles. It rolls at pace to emigration and then all of a sudden everyone accelerates on the huge bridge 2-4 lanes, we do not make the smarts by bike. Malay immigration is quick and simple. A little intimidating as a bike trip but you get away with it.

Malaysia🇱🇷 Thailand🇹🇭: Quiet Emile 🙂

  • Place of passage: Sungai Kolok
  • Date: June 30, 2019
  • Visa cost: €0
  • Duration: 30 days

Despite its reputation, this border was a banality for us. We park the bikes, make the exit of Malaysia in a first building and then the entrance in a second a few meters further. Nothing sorcerer and no incident related to religious tensions or our means of transport.

Thailand🇹🇭-Cambodia🇰🇭: The Wild West

  • Place of passage: Poipet
  • Date: July 26, 2019
  • Visa cost: $30
  • Duration: 30 days
  • To provide: 1 photo

In Poipet, the “trouble” begins. We are asked to pay US$30 to enter Cambodia except that we do not have any, that no bank offers directly back and that we have Bahts to sell. We therefore choose to try the option of paying in Thai currency with the rate of the day: $30 equivalent to 900 THB. But when we arrived at the visa office, the official did not lose sight of it: it was 1
200 THB, no less. We insist on 900 and then wait 1/4 of an hour before the official comes to ask us 100 thB more for his pocket probably … In the end we paid 1000 THB per person while we were asked 1200 when we arrived. It’s always $5 saved but a small victory for corruption.

Cambodia🇰🇭-Laos🇱🇦: The tenacious bakchich

  • Place of passage: Nongnokkhiene
  • Date: 12 August 2019
  • Visa cost: $30
  • Duration: 30 days
  • To provide: 1 photo

At the first counter, which looks serious, we fill out the form and pay $30 official and posted. At the second wicket, two officials announce dagy: “$2 each for stamp”. We categorically refuse, Cléa pretends to call the Embassy and then explains to them with composure that no, we will not pay their bakchich. We wait (no luck for them, it rains and we are in no hurry) and the youngest of the soldiers finally gives in after 15min: visas stamped in pocket, and this time without concession!

Laos🇱🇦-China🇨🇳: Game over

  • Place of application: Ventiane then Luang Prabang
  • Date: 19 and 26 August 2019
  • Visa cost: $30 (from Laos)
  • Duration: 30 days
  • To provide: scanned passport, current visa scanned, 1 photo, detailed itinerary, hotel reservation, A/R plane tickets, 3 latest bank statements, proof of insurance…

Before we even left, we were not reassured by the Chinese visa… Many friends have been denied their applications in third countries (from Iran for example) for obscure geopolitical reasons.

In Vientiane, we make a first attempt: in the hustle and bustle of the Embassy, the official examines our file and coldly announces “you don’t work in Laos, no visa for China“. We ask him when this measure was “2 months.” Disgruntled (we were not aware of this condition, mentioned on any official website), we leave empty-handed and ask the French embassy who refuses to help us. We are trying to call the Chinese Embassy to find out more: to no avail.

In Luang Prabang, 1 week later, we retry and arrive in front of closed doors and a terse statement: the Consulate is exceptionally closed this Monday, August 26. Having no assurance that it will reopen the next day, and knowing that the application is processed in 3 working days minimum with a local festival interspersed, we finally abandon this project to enter Yunnan in September.

We finally chose to head northeast, to the Houaphan region and then Vietnam. Recently, it is possible to apply for an e-visa for land borders, in this case Na Meo. In 48 hours, we received a positive response! Fingers crossed to make sure everything goes smoothly at the border and we can’t wait to discover this new country with a thousand and one facets by bike!

Laos🇱🇦 Vietnam🇻🇳: J-10!

  • Place of request: Online
  • Date: 09 September 2019
  • Visa cost: $25 (e-visa)
  • Duration: 30 days
  • To provide: scanned passport, 1 photo scanned