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Sunburnt, squiffy and saddle-sore

A mountain biking adventure through Vietnam and Laos


View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

The Red Spokes group on the road in Laos

The Red Spokes group on the road in Laos

Friday 9th December

I have just sat down at a PC after aching, yawning and noshing my way round Phnom Penh for most of the afternoon. (Phnom Penh vies for the title of most unpronouncable capital city with Antananarivo). Yes, I'm in Cambodia, and the title of this blog entry is a clue as to how we got here. We've been in the saddle for the past three weeks, cycling 1250km (hence the aches and yawns) through northern Vietnam and Laos with a Redspokes tour group. The tour finished yesterday in Vientiane, and we parted company with our cycling buddies this morning. It's been the undoubted highlight of our trip so far and it's going to be a struggle to do it justice in a blog. This won't be a blow-by-blow account, but a selection of the choiciest nuggets that spring to mind as I sit and digest my wagyu burger and creme brulee.

Let's start with David, our livewire tour leader, also known as "Walks". An interesting nickname for a cyclist, I'm sure you'd agree, but David had no choice in the matter. Nor does it refer to any reluctance on his part to cycle the hard miles, for David pedals as though he was born with a saddle glued to his arse. It would have been a more fitting moniker for Phong, our local guide in Vietnam. Phong's cycling habits were a useful guide to the terrain ahead. If he and his bike stayed in the support vehicles, we knew a big climb lay in wait. At the top of the climb, Phong's bike would be retrieved from the truck and he would emerge from the minibus in suspiciously clean cycling gear. This ritual marked the start of a long downhill ride.

David and Phong were a fantastic double act in Vietnam, and we punters were all very well cared for. In Laos, Daolit took over Phong's role. A former Buddhist monk, Daolit was a daydreamer and a ditherer, and David played up to this image by jokingly referring to him as Manuel to his Basil Fawlty. David and the local guides were ably supported by a team of support staff who drove the vehicles, cleaned and maintained the bikes, and kept us fed and hydrated during the rides. I was genuinely impressed with the dedication and attention to detail shown by all the Vietnamese and Lao staff.

The cycling was tough. I don't have an exact figure for the total ascent, but we were climbing between 500m and 2000m each day, and cycling about 80km on average (110km on the longest days). There were small hills, big hills and small hills which turned out to be big hills thanks to David's looseness with the term "undulations" and an occasional tendency to mix up his daily briefings.

We started in the damp and the drizzle in Vietnam and finished with an absolute scorcher on the final day into Vientiane, but on the whole the weather was very good. The sunshine showed off the beautiful landscapes of both countries to great effect, was strong enough to burn us through sunscreen and created problems for whichever of us was carrying the heavy SLR. I will let our photographs speak for themselves in some future blog entries, but I just hope they were worth all the extra legwork we both had to put in to re-catch the group each time we stopped for a snap!

Saturday 10 December

It's now our second day in Phnom Penh. (Writer's block set in last night.) According to the Lonely Planet Cambodia guide, yesterday we should have visited the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, National Museum and Khmer Rouge Killing Fields before rounding off the day with a sunset cruise on the Mekong. This morning we should be shopping in the Central and Russian Markets. We must be really crap travellers because we have done none of these things. Instead, we've had a lie in, made use of the hotel pool, handed some seriously sweaty cycling clothes to the laundry service, booked a full body massage and looked through some of our photos.

Back to the cycle tour. We started as a group of 16 in Hanoi, dominated by Brits but with a healthy smattering of other nationalities also represented: the USA, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Croatia and Ireland. With damp conditions, tummy troubles and big hill climbs striking at various points during the first week, the group dynamic took a while to establish, but on recaching Sapa for a well-earned rest day, reputations were being forged. JP's repertoire of one-liners kept us entertained, John and David sought out the kind of delicacies which are normally only seen entering the mouths of C-list celebs during a Bushtucker Trial, Ivan delighted in sharing his brilliant photos and Edwina showed a penchant for the odd bottle of plonk.

The social side of the trip was a welcome change for us after the relative solitude of Himalayan trekking, and things got more interesting after we crossed the border into Laos. At Dien Bien Phu, our final night in Vietnam, we said goodbye to three of our number who had only come for the Vietnam section of the ride. Over the border we swapped Bia Ha Noi for Beerlao and the nameless Vietnamese firewater for lao lao, a spirit made from fermented rice and sold in recycled mineral water bottles. Our daily consumption of these beverages increased substantially, as did the resulting silliness and squiffiness each night.

The day of the border crossing was an experience in itself. To save time, we were bussed up to the Vietnam border checkpost where getting the required exit stamp was a formality. Beyond this we met our luxury Lao transportation, a flatbed truck with wooden benches, a roof and open sides. The bumpy journey to the Lao immigration post was good fun, but things took a turn for the worst when we arrived. The border officials closed the office and went to eat their lunch. We thought this was a ruse to get us to spend our money in the nearby cafe, coincidentally owned by one of the officials. David has experienced problems at this border crossing before, and the usual solution is to offer a few greenbacks as a sweetener. But the guards would not accept a bribe and would not re-open the office. Pete, one of our group, wryly observed that corruption can sometimes be a very useful thing (if you've got money). It was only later on that the real reason for the delay became clear. A Singapoean cycling group had arrived at the border just before us, and amongst their number was a Swiss lady with a diplomatic passport. This freaked out the border guards to such an extent that they refused to accept our money in case we were connected to the Singaporeans. They eventually processed our visas after a two hour delay, and we did have to bribe them after all.

The plan had been to cycle from the border down to Muang Khua, the nearest village. But we had been so heavily delayed that we had to do the whole trip by bus. For some, this meant the relative luxury of the air-conditioned minibus which had accompanied us all the way from Hanoi. For the rest, the open-sided Lao truck awaited. What they hadn't counted on was the sudden deterioration in the road conditions. Great plumes of dust billowed up under the wheels of passing construction traffic, coating our brave adventurers with fine sediment which blackened their skin and clogged their hair. Being an asthmatic and a contact lens wearer, I had taken the wise precaution of travelling in the minibus. We pitied the truck travellers as we watched them disappear again and again into each cloud of dust - it looked like some grim form of torture that might have been dreamt up by the Vietnamese communists. But they were a resilient lot, and not only did the whole adventure prove to be a bonding experience, but they even seemed to get some bizarre masochistic enjoyment from it. Perhaps an enterprising Lao tour company could even start marketing this as the latest extreme sport for falangs?

One of the recurring jokes of the trip involved the facilities at the guesthouses. Now I don't want to disparage Red Spokes here, because in most cases they had to work with whatever was available. But in the more remote places, breakfast time became a chance to compare the range of wildlife which had been found in the bedrooms - cockroaches, lizards and mice to name some examples. Another facility which caused great aniticipation in the group was the inifinity pool, a luxury which Redspokes make sure is provided each night. The definition has been somewhat stretched and in most cases the pool would be more accurately described as an infinity bucket in the corner of the bathroom. On the penultimate day, David received news from Daolit that the hotel at Na Ngum did indeed have a pool. Strangely enough this is one joke which never seemed to wear thin, and sure enough we arrived to find a banner which announced "swimming pool will open soon". Imagine our surprise as we climbed the steps to our room to find a brand new, fully-functioning pool - and not just any old pool, but an infinity pool with a superb view over Lake Na Ngum. Even David could not quite believe this!

For the sake of brevity I've had to gloss over lots of highlights from the tour, but the one abiding memory I will carry with me is of laughing, smiling Lao children running excitedly out of their school gates to greet us, giving us high fives, shouting "Sabaidee!" from their houses and chasing us on their bikes. The sound of happy children is the sound of the Laos countryside, cheering us on the tough climbs and notable by its absence on the quiet stretches. What a terrific country in which to be a traveller, and what a terrific way in which to experience it. Thanks Redspokes!

Posted by Chris Parsons 21:45 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam laos cycling

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Comments

Brilliant blogging Jen. Well written and highly amusing, I am still chuckling now. Thanks for the kind words, it is a pleasure to know you enjoyed yourself so much.
I look forward to seeing you both again, maybe in May.

Happy travels and enjoy the wine in the FCC.

by David Walker

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