Cycling and resting in northern Vietnam

July 2016

As mentioned here we were on our way to China. We were going to leave the bicycles in Kunming and go home to Germany for a break. So with Germans being able to get Visa free entrance into Vietnam for 15 days at the moment we took that possibility and cycled from Nam Can to Hanoi.

The extremes were staggering. At first we cycled through small villages and over quiet roads. Had a beer in the evening at one of the many local draft beer shops.

When the Ho Chi Minh Highway began the traffic was starting to get a bit more intense. Many drivers that passed us had a rather intimate relationship with their horns and honked at us and every other vehicle in sight.

We quickly learned a few words for vegetarian food in Vietnamese and after that it was quite easy to find something delicious to eat. We loved the green tea that always came with the food.

What I especially appreciated in those days were the ever present clouds. They clang ominously to the sky without ever unleashing on us. So we had a few relaxed days of cycling without the sun constantly beating down on us.

And then suddenly we arrived in Hanoi. The other side of the extreme. As we drew closer to the city, traffic started to whizz past us from all sides and the honking was like a huge dissonant concert. And suddenly I felt like drowning in the city traffic and noise around me. I didn’t want to continue any more, I just wanted to curl up in a ball and stop. Stop cycle touring, just not move forward any more.

So we stopped for a coffee, had a break and then of course continued. Stopping in the middle of a busy road is not the best of alternatives after all. Torsten took over navigating and I just followed as best as I could. We stopped once more and I waited with the bicycles while he bought some supplies for dinner. Soon after we arrived at Mike’s place, our warmshowers host in Hanoi.

And as much as I hated the traffic at first the more I loved Hanoi from the next morning on. Use the search engine of your choice for some pictures as I was too busy with all the city life around me to take any. But I really loved the millions of coffee places, the fruit vendors walking through the street and the difference between the loud and busy roads and the quiet side alleys where people live.

We also found the perfect place to celebrate Torsten’s birthday: A vegetarian buffet with Yoghurt coffee for dessert. Freakin’ delicious, let me tell you!

Here in Hanoi we also finally found a place to replace Torsten’s broken handlebar. At Lam Velo George was very helpful in finding a used handlebar in good condition and even helped us with some matching brakes.

Our week in Hanoi went by way too fast. We met lots of fantastic people: Mike introduced us to a group of Vietnamese cyclists that had just finished cycling for a few weeks. We also went to a couchsurfing meeting and socialized with lots of the people living in Mike’s house. And we were happy to meet Siria and Nick from Out and Away. We had been in touch with them since Malaysia and it was nice to finally meet in person. So that week was exactly what I needed. Not too much cycling and moving from one place to another but lots of human connection instead. And that always makes everything better anyways.

After camping on the roof of Mike’s house for a week, Torsten got sick in the last two days. As this was the last day on our Visa we took the first bus to get to the border to China quickly. Not our favourite mode of transport but rather comfortable!

Shortly before the border I bought one last bag of Vietnamese coffee and then we entered China. And whatever you heard about Chinese border crossings – we experienced one of our most friendly ones. More on that next time!

Laos: Into the mountains or The ever growing comfort zone

June 2016

Cycling into the mountains seemed like the only reasonable thing to do after months in the plains. Since about two months ago it was freaking hot. Not to forget the humidity which made every attempt to sleep in our tent feel like a sauna. To battle the temperatures we took refuge under a waterfall by the side of the road…

…which made the following climbing a lot easier. After Thakek the road 12 winds its way up through rich green valleys.

The climb itself wasn’t too exhausting but the heat took its toll. After looking around for a bit in Nakai we found a simple bamboo bungalow and decided to stay for two nights. The fresh mountain air and the cooler nights appealed a lot to us.

I was still torn between enjoying my beautiful surroundings and being overwhelmed by it all. But over the coming days I also noticed something else.

Since starting cycle touring in Bali about 10 month ago I had come a long way in terms of feeling comfortable even without understanding what was happening around me. Whether it being languages, other customs or sign languages I couldn’t interpret at first. It didn’t bother me much. I didn’t feel the need to understand everything around me. I really trusted that I would understand the things I needed to.

This ability is crucial to survive and enjoy long term travel I think. But maybe also for life. When I think back to life in Germany I remember conversations with people who mention being next to a group of people talking to each other in a language which was not German or English. (And probably neither French, Italian, …). And often people would report feeling uneasy or even scared about that. I never really shared that feeling. But being out of my comfort zone a lot in the past two years I really noticed it growing. I feel comfortable in more situations and places than ever: tiny villages where every one knows that we are not local, situations where I need to make a fool out of myself to get across whatever I want to say, with people I don’t share a language / experiences / cultural background with. And so on and so on…

Getting through all of that works best with a lot of smiles, staying calm and not taking yourself too seriously. You are gonna make mistakes, you are gonna make a fool out of yourself more times than you can count. But with listening closely, with opening yourself up to other ways of communicating and doing things, there lie new worlds waiting to be experienced.

From Nakai we cycled north until Phonsavan. The road had just been tarred and was stunningly beautiful to ride on.

A big part of the area had been flooded in order to build a dam which created some interesting scenery.

While it was usually just very hot and humid we also noticed signs that rainy season was getting closer. Big clouds started appearing on the sky and threatened rain in the distance.

Every once in a while we saw signs like these:

Looking back on these pictures I still think that this was one of the most beautiful areas we have ever ridden through. Not much traffic, nice roads, craggy mountains on the side and lots of green scenery to soothe our souls.

In the villages we saw lots of women with hand made skirts which are made on these:

Before Lak Sao the rain caught up with us. It wasn’t too big a change from the ever present humidity though. We were wet all the time anyways.

We loved these little shelters for a break from the sun. People usually have them in farming areas for exactly that purpose I guess.

In Lak Sao we were close to a Vietnamese border and thus had our first Vietnamese coffee – yum!

More rain… And it did actually get a little bit colder this time. So we decided to wait it out.

All that climbing takes its toll…

Lots of wool for weaving…

Some repairs on the road:

We were almost in Phonsavan and ready for a bit of a break.

We found some coffee on the market…

… and cycled to the Plain of Jars.

There are some theories on what the huge jars were used for but their purpose is still not totally clear.

We really enjoyed the area though. After cycling through mountain valleys all the time it was nice to be in wide open fields like these.

Before getting ready for the last push to Vietnam, we visited a small museum on the ever present threat of UXOs (Unexploded Ordinance) in Laos. It is mindboggling to me how a comparatively short war can still influence people’s lives after all that time. People still loose limbs or die from UXOs until today and will continue to do so for a long time. And of course it’s mostly people who don’t have a choice. Farmers who need to farm the land in order to survive and cannot wait for years and years to have it cleared.

Here is some information boards from the museum:

Lot of the clearing of UXOs is done with international aid. And I do think the international community should feel responsible for removing some of the damage inflicted on Laos and its people.

We loved our guesthouse in Phonsavan. But unfortunately we had to leave for Visa reasons.

And so we followed this very green road towards Nam Can in Vietnam.

More on that chapter next time!