Wednesday, February 20, 2013

10 days over the top in Laos and Vietnam

Ainaz is in Dalat, Viet Nam

When you do what you really feel you need to do, it all unfolds naturally.

I wanted mountains, and I wanted to see as much as possible in North of Laos and Vietnam before starting the Great Explorations trip in Ha Noi on Feb 12th.
My plan was to ride Feb 1-11th from Vientiane, Laos to Sapa, Vietnam (1,050km of mountainous terrain) and catch the night train to Ha Noi from Lao Cai near Sapa. But life usually happens differently than you plan, the trick is to remember what was the purpose of your plan and recognize opportunities in the alterations that are forced upon your plan ;)

After a night of sharing a room with a German and an Israeli (no, this is not the prelude to a bad joke. Yes, the world is slowly getting to be a better place :) and I truly believe travelling has a lot to do with it, so get out there ;)), and shedding at least 3kilos off my bike (books, clothes, cat food, miscellaneous little things like half the package of my Qtips and my homeopathic jetlag pills!), I left Vientiane later than I wanted to on Feb 1st.
I started riding out of town at 3:30pm, taking a ride-by photo of the Arc de Triomphe of Vientiane - a Laotian replica monument dedicated to those who fought for independence from France.
Patuxai - Victory Gate
And a quick stop at the boulangerie to pick up some fresh baguettes for dinner... Lao isn't completely independent from France ;)

But only 15km out of town I get a flat, on the rear tire - note that this is a new tire that I just had put on by the bike shop in Vientiane precisely because I wanted to have Schwalbe tires on both my wheels to NOT get slowed down by flats during my 10 day challenge! So, what do you do when life gives you a flat tire.. you change it, right there on the side of the highway. The truck you see in the background of my photo also had a flat tire. I won the race of changing my flat quicker :) They gave me a kind wave when the passed me by later down the road.
used my fresh $5 tube 1hr after purchase because the mechanic who put on my new tire pinched my inner tube and didn't catch his error because he didn't put enough air in my tire, so when I pumped it up to have efficiency,psssssflat.
So, only 32km out of Vientiane it started getting dark and I began looking for a place to sleep. A few ask arounds, I ended up staying at this Temple.

It felt too exposed to dangle in a hammock in the middle there all night, so I decided to sleep on the floor. But there was this guy (not a monk) who kept coming by, talking in Laotian and I only knew how to count to 10 so there was no useful communication happening and I just wanted to be left alone. So when I saw the young monks and this guy watching me from the balcony of the monk's house, I decided to build myself a fort for privacy at the risk of being disrespectful to my hosts. I used the whiteboard and my bike as two walls and floor mats from the temple to wrap all around :)

On the back of the whiteboard was English lessons for the monks to practice!!! it made me laugh, but also creeped me out a little!!
My Favourite, #4: "Is he a lady-boy?" ...haha..


The next morning, I reached 3000km on my odometer, right before it needed a battery keep this image for my future balance;)

So, I had two ice-creams,  one before and one after lunch to celebrate! ...and continued...

Along the way, I met several cycle tourists. Amongst the coolest were this Polish couple, Anna and Mat:
Anna took more weight off my bike by accepting my orange and white cycling top that used to give me a fun criss-cross tan. I'll miss this shirt, but I definitely didn't need it. I hope to see it in a photo on their blog sometimes :)
I was spending so much time chatting with cycle-tourists that I had to create some efficiency in my day otherwise I would never make the distances before night fall. So I made a little snack pouch to eat while I climb the slow uphills :)
The pink plastic bag was my snack pouch. It didn't stay full for very long!
My favourite coconut snack, being made fresh on the side of my road. Yum!
 I rode through some pretty rice fields in North of Laos.

this image reminds me of "gilaan", north of Iran
135kms later, I arrive in the party city of Vang Viang. But I was too toast to I had some delicious Indian food, watched some tourists purchase illegal party substances,  and hit the sac.
Doesn't Vang Viang remind you of Squamish, BC?!
Beautiful mountain backdrop in Vang Viang
 The next day, the scenery continued to take my breath away.

Where is a geologist when you need one...
Yesss, rice and vegetable fields in valleys 100s of meters high...
And if it wasn't the scenery taking my breath away, it was the hills!

I went through two sets of clothes each day through the mountains,  one set for the sweaty uphills, and another for the breezy downhills.
Beads of sweat on my arm!
Hearty noodle soup for lunch to get me ready for the 1400m climb ahead...
Today I learned the word for cabbage in Laotian is the same as in Farsi: "Kalam" :)
And I climbed...
Doing what you want is not always easy.., fresh sticky asphalt and tourist buses were my reminder
And I enjoyed my new visuals...

And I was blown away by the views...

I was truly happy being exactly where I am, doing exactly what I was doing...

The mountain villages were plenty and a joy to pass through.

And I was proud...

The last cycle-tourist I met this day was German Stephan #1. He was from Munich, traveling a long time on an open ended trip. He left behind an engineering career to hit the road. His trip was interrupted once majorly because he got hit by a car in Iran.  He was traveling with a cool girl right now for two months, but she was heading back to Munich to do her PhD in psychology. Awesome duo. We talked for so long that I didn't make it up the 1400m pass that day before nightfall!
His blog in German:

 So I slept at the restaurant at 1300m high...
...with this view :)

 And in the morning, I sat on a toilet with this view!

And then I continued my climb, admiring the simple, humble, resourceful architecture in the villages I passed through.

The downhills were not always fast because the road conditions would suddenly change...

But nothing could dampen my mood :)

This day, I had 135kms to ride to Luang Prabang + two 15km long climbs up to 1200m high each.
At this point when people asked "Where do you come from?", I started answering "From down there."

I continued meeting more cool cyclists on this road... this is Albert from Austria. He's been riding for a while... you can tell :)

 And on top of the second pass of the day, I thought the hard part is done...

...but at 5:30pm, 1hr before sunset I realize that my map is actually 10km off on the km count to Luang Prabang...I'm going to have a 145km day if I want to get there today (longest day of the trip, yet).  But I really wanted to get there to take a break day the next day, so I braced up with a powerbar (I brought 10 bars from Vancouver ;)) and pedaled along, trying to keep a pace that would get me to town before dark.
Then the rain started! "Are you serious?", I ask the sky! "Ok, bring it on." I stop at a gas station and geared up my bags with rain covers, put my camera away and turned on my flashy lights to stay visible through dusk.
And I ride on.
Then there comes a few rolling hills right before town... and I really just have nothing left in me. So I swear under my tongue a bunch. Too proud and too determined to let anything get in my way at this point, I ride along, slowly but steadily to Luang Prabang.  But I have to say, these last 100m high rolling hills were harder for me than the three 1000m+ climbs I had done in the past two days!

So, my arrogance got me to achieve my goal. I arrived just before dark to the old Capital,  found a clean, cheap and conveniently located bed near the night market, went for dinner with two friends made along the way - Belgian Tijl and German Stephan #2, and even had some energy left in me to bargain a fair price for a cotton head scarf I wanted to keep my head cool in the climbs to come.

I enjoyed a good long sleep and had a relaxed break day around my most favourite city in Laos. The day started with an unplanned breakfast with a new friend Alain and wrapped up with a majestic sunset over the Mekong with Tijl and a great dinner with a superb bottle of wine with Gofreddo.

Although I would have loved to spend more time in LP, I had to move on the next day.... I still had 660km ahead and only 6 days to do it.

But when you really really want something, you eventually will have it...
Only 28km out of Luang Prabang, while shifting as I was climbing a little hill, my rear derralieure got caught in my spokes for the second time this trip and the metal hanger ripped away like a piece of paper! "Are you fking kidding me?!" (Excuse my language... But in 5 years of riding this bike over 40,000kms this never happened to me, and now for the second time in two weeks this happens again? And now, of all times? Not the day before Luang Prabang so I don't lose kms, not on my break-day so I don't lose a day of riding,  but today and just 30km outside of the city.)
Ok, thank you universe for granting me another day in LP... now at least please also line up a quick pickup back to town and a good mechanic, so I can go see the waterfalls I missed going to yesterday!

This time it wasn't the mud on the road that got my derralieure jumping and stuck in the spokes, it was the poor work of the mechanic in Vientiane who didn't link my chain back together properly after installing my new derralieure and as a result my chain kept falling off the front rings when this link couldn't grab on at the tangent points and so my shifting resulted in a cross chain which tilted my rear derralieure and caught it in the spokes.
I hadn't seen a car for some time and the last village was a few kms back, but just 5 minutes of lingering around and there came a local van taxi thing to take me and my bike back to town for $2.5 :)
Thank you universe!

Back in town, after some walking around, I made some new friends, who told me of an even cheaper better place to stay, run by a guy who spoke pretty good English. So I checked into their hostel, and got directions from this guy about where the local bike mechanics are, and headed out without the extra luggage to find a healer for my broken bike.
A few head shakes gesturing "no", and "good luck with that, little girl", I came across a helpful shop keeper... at his shop he rented bikes and scooters, so he had a good mechanic he used for his fleet. He spoke perfect English,  so I was able to inspire him with my travel story, and generously he went out of his way to call around and get his mechanic to find the hanger piece that broke on my derralieure.
I had to pay a premium for this little piece of aluminum metal, but the convenience of them finding this exact part, that the last time I had to bike and hitchhike 1200kms to find it, within an hour, was priceless to me.
So, while they motored off with my bicycle to get it all back into shape...

I rented a scooter for the first time ever and scooted to the waterfalls 30kms away, to catch my second break day :)

...Do I even need to say anything here?

Find Ainaz if you can ;) (Photo by Albert Palen)
 Yeah, I know. Wow.

I have totally fallen in love with Laos. Laos is on this trip what France was for me on my Europe cycle-tour. The feeling is too sacred to explain it. But I know the same way I looked forward to coming back to France since I left 4 years ago, I'm already restless anticipating the next iteration of my reunion with Laos.

Oh yeah, and I practiced what I learned from watching my bike get ridden away, by giving this fellow, Peter, a boost up the hill on the way back from the waterfalls :)
The guy who took this photo was a cyclist taking a rest up the hill having just completed the climb!
That evening I stared at the map for a while, and talked to my new friends and roommates a bunch, until a new route dawned on me! Haha
I would ride 150km the next day to Nong Khiao, instead of to Odoumxai as previously planned, where I could catch a boat up Nam Ou (river) to the upper highway close to Vietnam border and cut at least half a day from my ride.

This was my delicious lunch on the 150km day. Today I learned Laos style sticky rice is called "khao neeo".
Nong Khiao is surrounded by beautiful mountains with lots of opportunities for trekking and more. And I heard from friends that Muang Noi 1.5hr up the river is even more precious (only 3hrs of electricity per day and no internet forces you to be one with nature).

In Nong Khiao I finally got a shot of the Laos and the hammer & sickle flags together. I had no idea Laos was communist before visiting. They have rules like midnight curfew and in some parts of the country even internet is turned off at night (though the latter may be because it costs them money to have tourists browsing through the night and this is a way to save a buck).

In Nong Khiao, some friends introduced me to Lao Mama who made delicious deep fried pancakes and the best Loa coffee I tasted in the whole country.
The pancake she is making in the photo,  I wrapped in a banana leaf and took on the boat ride with me.

This next boat ride I had to pay for. But it was fun to be piled into a wooden boat with 20 locals, 10 tourists and all of our luggage and of course there was a chicken on board at one point...

Another cycle tourist had the same brilliant idea as me, so our bikes spooned for the boat ride upstream.

.... puttering along...

I got to take some closeup shots of the albino water buffalos when we pulled to shore to bucket out the flood of water from the hull around the boat engine.

The boat ride took all day, so I didn't really save any time for my kms after all. So Stephan #2, German cycle-tourist,  and I spent a whole lot of time staring at maps on the boat... sharing stories and dreaming up potential routes for the next day, month, or even future trips.
In this photo Stephan is telling the stories of his biking through India. He doesn't keep a blog, but give him a map and he will tell you the story around every curve in the road.

Off the boat, the next morning I head West towards Vietnam. I have a vague idea what today will look like... but no idea what I will do after ...border is 65km away on top of a 1200m+ pass, should be mostly downhill on the other side, 35km to the first town, Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam. Tomorrow is Lunar new year, a friend in Nong Khiao taught me how to say happy new year in Vietnamese ("chuc mung nam moi!") and warned me that there will be no services for a week around new year.. maybe there is no trains or buses from Sapa either. The closer I get to Sapa, the farther out of reach it seems.

As I climb towards the border, the air in the mountains resembles my state of mind. I can only see a few steps ahead, it's all hazy after that. As I pedal, I try to recall why I'm so fixated on Sapa.

As the road rises above the clouds, the exhaustion is kicking in. It feels like I've been climbing for 40kms and around the bend I see more switchbacks.
I love my Laotian head scarf :)

Along with the exhaustion, comes clarity.
Sapa is the only town name I can associate with in North Vietnam, this is why I want to go there. A friend told me to go there because it's beautiful, cascading rice fields and mountains. So... my desire out of going to Sapa is beautiful views and 1400m high pass to take on as a challenge.

After a head butt with the Laos border officials over the $1.25 they were asking for merely because I'm crossing border on a Saturday.. I wished luck for the two German travellers I met at the border who had to walk the 35km to Dien Bien Phu since there are no buses and no rides to be found on this day - It's Feb 9th, the evening before New Year Day.
I was ready for some rewarding downhills.
But, I still have more to learn about letting go of expectations apparently ... because there lies before me, 35kms of this...
The road conditions between the border and Dien Bien Phu were absolutely Poo!
Preparing mentally for possibly having to spend my first night in Vietnam in the woods because I really don't know if I'll make it to DBP before night fall... I rode on... rewarded with amazing views of just what I dreamed North Vietnam to look like :)

Sunset over the Vietnam Laos border mountains.

Might as well be Sapa, no?
I made it to town and I found a gueshouse with a host who spoke descent English. I set out to find some food. Popping into a hotel cafe to ask directions to the nearest ATM and use the internet to let my mom know I'm well and alive... I saw some other tourists. They were kind to give me directions to the ATM because no one at the cafe understood my question (I was still new to learning how to speak English with a Vietnamese accent!). Then the one in the blue striped shirt below asks where I'm coming from today, interested to share wisdom about our respective countries because they were headed into Laos the next day... As soon as I mention I'm travelling by bicycle..
He says, "umm, are you friends with Solidream?"..
I say, "YES!"
He says, "Oh, I recognize you from the last photo album! You rode with them in Cambodia didn't you?"
I say, "Yeah!" OMG!
Turns out Julien (striped) went to university with Brian of Solidream. He's out here with his friends Xavier and Thomas travelling for a couple months and they were on their way to meet up with Solidream in Luang Prabang at the end of the week :) haha
Check out their fun travel blog here:
Le monde est vraiment petit!

Right, I still need to decide what I'm doing between here and Ha Noi. I was too tired to even look at the map that night. So I slept and trusted that when I wake up, I'll know what I need to do.
I slept in until 10am, but when I got up and started getting dressed, without any effort, I knew what I needed to do :)
After seeing the condition of the road since the border, it was pretty clear I wasn't going to make it to Sapa in 2 days. I recalled that on the boat to Muang Kua someone told me the road going through Son La had been recently reconstructed and is a popular motorbike route. So I looked at the map and there it was, I was 165kms away from Son La (easy to ride over 2 days) and Son La is only 300km away from Ha Noi and a big enough a city that on Feb 12th there should be a bus running to Ha Noi from there.

So, I set out for a very enjoyable ride through mountain villages with the road pretty much all to myself since everyone was home with their families, and I got to witness many local New Year Celebrations along the way :):):)
Beautiful traditional dressed women ready to party!

My first Vietnamese Coffee :)
Every stop, dozens of locals gathered round to exchange regards, no words needed :) I loved the way the women do up their lonnnng head of hair in the North
And more limestone valleys of rice fields at 800m high :)
My New Year dinner and a movie! Everything was closed. I didn't eat properly for 3 days after entering Vietnam!
Ha, new way of shooting self portraits.
beautiful colours in the minority tribal outfits
Little kitty who made me wish I had biked my bag of cat food through the mountains.
Could've been Sapa, no? ;)
The last day of riding to Son La, I had a 1500m high pass. I walked some of the switchbacks because I was tired now.
And as I descended down the mountain into Son La, I realized that I got my cascading rice fields and I got my mountain pass challenge. And I feel I visited North of Laos and Vietnam in the best form possible. A general plan, modified multiple times, leading to even better adventures than I could have imagined, a few new friends made along the way, and few more lessons learned about myself and this life.
I'm content :)

So, on Feb 12th, early morning I cozied up on the "sleeping bus" (yes the chairs are reclined bunk beds!), for the 10hr ride to Ha Noi.

I've spend the past 8 days with an awesome trio and a local guide biking and shuttling and flying through Vietnam from North to South, eating lots of good food and staying at some fancy hotels which was just what I needed after my mountain challenge. This opportunity came as a result of my involvement with Great Explorations in North America over the past 4 years... Thank you Robbin McKinney :)

And guess what! Later today.. Dariya is arriving in this same town!
She went East from Cambodia directly into Vietnam and heading South, and I went North through Laos and then South through Vietnam... and because of my jet fueled speed of travel and her leasurely days along the way, we are at the same place in time again, heading the same direction :) So we catch up tonight here in Dalat, maybe sit out the rain together tomorrow in a Parisian style Ca Phe (Dalat even has a miniature Eiffel tower!) and see what the road ahead holds for us!!! :)


  1. Thanks for this one. They all should be as long as this one!! We also like your Laotian head scarf. Realy amazing pics. xx

  2. What a great story! I can sit at my desk and do all that cycling without burning calorie! :) -Guy

  3. Ainaz it has been so long. I am sorry. Reading through this post has reminded me how much I genuinely respect and admire you, in a way I do of no other.

    (I'm sorry if this is a triple posting, by the way. I tried to post from my phone but it was not cooperating.)

  4. It was so wonderful being with you on part of your journey. I look forward to more postings and pictures and wish you luck all along your way.

  5. Love your new head gear! You're such a cutie even when you're covered in dirt.

    Go rider girl Go!

  6. Haha that's awesome you have great spirit! :)))

  7. You are amazing my friend!!!!! xoxo

  8. I hope you're watching out for the rioting in Burma, where militant Buddhists are attacking Muslims. Something has clearly gone wrong with Buddhism as a religion, for this to happen. It's in Rhakine State, in the west.