2019 November. Cycle Chiang Rai to Hanoi

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    With Christmas carols being played in mid November it was the only sign I needed to leave Melbourne for a deep breathe in Asia before the real Christmas began. Besides I’d bought myself a new gravel bike, a real go anywhere Lynskey titanium frame with 38mm tires. I was itching to try it out. 

      My plane began to descend into Singapore, half asleep I peered out into the darkness. Below hundreds of ships lay asleep at anchor in the Straits of Singapore softly illuminated by flickering navigation lights. They sat motionless, stuck rigid in this inky black sea. The soft magical glow of the ships was reminiscent of the floating paper boat candles released along the Thu Bon river in Hoi An. Night had temporarily hidden Singapore’s heavy smog, big city grime and sultry conditions. Tonight it looked like fairyland.

      I’m back on board for my connecting flight to Chiang Mai just after dawn. This time as the plane lifts off it’s a whole different scene below. A murky haze of pollution swirls around the harbour clinging to the anchored ships in the gloom. The hulking ships no longer twinkle, last night’s mystical scene snuffed out by glaring daybreak.

         My time in beautiful Chiang Rai was again cushioned by Trish and Paul. I simply had to fly to Chiang Mai find the bus station then catch the Greenbus 200 kms to Chiang Rai. Paul, the fixer was standing kerbside with his pickup for my bike bag. Other than the sub tropical conditions and an abundance of Thai locals I could have been at home such was the comfort. My time there seemed to slip from one expat gathering to another with food that was spicy but never sinister. Paul even helped negotiate the best price to get my bike bag to my final hotel in Hanoi. I wasn’t going to get complacent though, the hard work of travelling on my own and keeping your wits about you at all times was just around the corner. 

       I’m still in Chiang Rai on day three, always the tipping point for guests and hits alike. I threw a leg over my bike, waved Trish and Paul good bye and ventured 100 kms North to Chiang Khong, the border town with Laos on the Mekong river. There is little to say about Chiang Khong, like all border towns it’s sole existence is to allow you to take a final gasp then pass. I stopped the night and ate enthusiastically after my long day’s ride whilst Thai mosquitoes feasted just as enthusiastically on my bare ankles under the table. Tomorrow I cross into Laos where I will get more potent repellent. 

         I woke early knowing I had thirty kms to ride to the border and an indeterminate amount of bureaucracy. As long as you have money and time border customs is a puzzle we can all negotiate. A one U.S dollar Saturday surcharge was for many just another numbing hurdle. Many were mumbling to themselves unsure it was going to the Laos Government. My bike and I were lifted into a bus to cross the Mekong freedom bridge through ‘no mans land’ and then there was Laos visa stamping to be done. I reached the slow boat ferry with an hour to spare, enough time to buy a two day ticket, grab a sandwich and bottle of water. My bike was lashed onto the roof with other bundled parcels. Soon we had enough passengers to head off and we allowed the river to take us off downstream towards Pakbeng. 

          I had ridden the Mekong from here three years ago. Little had changed on the boat. There were a few older travellers, that would be me. There was an assortment of locals to be dropped in remote villages whose entertainment was the weird assortment of wild eyed backpackers. They sat further back with one eye on the boat lady willing her to open the bar and then exchanging fistfuls of Laos kip for bottles of Beerlao. By mid afternoon these young nomads were bleary eyed or fast asleep. They were certainly sluggish when we hit the Pakbeng river bank. 

             It was pitch black and 6pm when I finally got to take my bike off the ferry roof. I trudged up the hill happy knowing I had a room booked and better still, knew its location. Wrong… as I neared the hotel a man stopped me asked where I was staying. No he said we have no rooms left I have rearranged your room in the hotel next door. Little did he know I had stayed there previously. This other hotel’s rooms are constructed of rattan. Rattan is absolutely traditional and looks fantastic but rattan is purely a modesty screen to the outside world. It does nothing to slow the arrival of mosquitoes, the call of a rooster at dawn nor the smell of your neighbour’s cooking. But I had no choice. I was tired, angry and far from gracious. I sucked in some air, had a shower then ate a delicious Indian meal. In the restaurant I had the pleasure of staring at many of the familiar ferry faces, they stared back blankly. Back at rattan villa I lit a mosquito coil and slept like a baby. Till dawn that is when roosters find their voice but I wasn’t bitten by a single mozzie.

             My second ferry day into Luang Prabang was identical to the first except that the mountains became craggier and we had a mid river arrival. A speeding motor boat raced up next to us with a saffron gowned monk on board. He was busy taking photos of our boat even before his speed boat drifted alongside us. Our monk clambered aboard with a broad movie star smile. He sat down opposite me and started sorting through his things. An Italian leather man bag, a neat clear package containing a brand new set of robes and a carry all in matching saffron. From the saffron bag he produced his Latest iPhone and began taking photographs of people on the boat photographing him and laughing wildly. 

              When he tired of this he brought out a container of Italian coffee satchels and walked down the boat to make himself a luxe coffee. Someone whispered that he was probably a Thai Monk and was surely being sponsored as Laos monks usually have little in this world. Whereas here was me warming to the idea. Think it through, other than getting up at dawn and chanting for half the day he was on a good thing. They are generally so humble and serene I think I found the bad boy in the pack. 

             Again it was pitch black when we arrived. I clambered up the river bank with my bike and rode into Luang Prabang. Finding my hotel took some doing, it was down a tiny laneway and I zigged back and forward till a kind young couple took me deeper into the dark laneways. Final I could settle in the one place for a few nights. 

            Truth be told I wasn’t actually planning on returning to Luang Prabang, as nice as it is but there was a reason. I’ve made a bit of a habit of this of late but I had no visa and needed to visit the Vietnam consulate the following morning if I wanted to finish in Hanoi. Luang Prabang is one of only two Vietnamese consulates in the whole of Laos. So my tour took a slight detour. Passport in hand, wallet in pocket and my best humble face I entered at 8.03am. I’d expected a queue but instead I found the staff yet to reach their desks with only me to serve. I handed over U.S$100 and was told to return at 11am the following day. It had taken longer to count the trillion Laos kip than fill in the form and attach my photo. 

              I took it easy over the next two days whilst I waited for my visa. I’d seen most of the attractions. The town is busy yet has a lovely natural calmness. Maybe a mixture of the monks and the serene river. The big difference this time was the influx of Chinese tourists. They are here in droves. I took my bike out and circumnavigated the place spotted familiar things, walked the night market and rode to a few nearby villages. My hotel manager pointed me towards a small cafe nearby for dinner. Bamboo River was well lit but in a dark side street and had ten tables. The owner had that wok burning hot and she produced three great dishes over three nights. Well why would you go elsewhere when you’ve found nirvana ? I had to have a sunset drink at the backpacker’s famous Utopia bar. Here you will find every European in Laos lounging on day beds comparing tattoos and the price of loose tobacco whilst staring out across the river at an ammmmazing sunset. I had my sunset, my Beerlao then shuffled around the corner to Bamboo River. The next morning I was back on my bike and heading East.

              Fog had hidden the river in Muang Khua when I drew back the curtains, finally a cool day I thought and stumbled to the shower. Breakfast was a laneway away, two stalls one with busy full tables and one without. Instinct says go with the crowd but the lady further on had a sweet smile and was busy laying fresh herbs in bowls on the tables. A cauldron of stock bubbled away with two lengths of bamboo feeding the low flame. It’s an elixir that morning Pho soup. Lifts your heart and massages the stomach. I was ready for the day although I knew there would be hills.     

               I was soon grinding my way up away from the river towards the Vietnamese border. The climbing would last much of the day and on more than one occasion I found myself slumped over the handlebars wondering why ? But the truth was I was in the middle of nowhere with little choice. Finally I arrived at the Vietnamese border, me and a handful of bored truck drivers. The Vietnamese customs waved me through and suddenly the road became a single lane goat track demolished by local mining trucks. I had snuck into Vietnam via a rarely used back door. It was no more than a tapestry of interwoven potholes. The road led straight into a quarry, not near but through. Massive trucks billowed clouds of fine talcum powder dust all over me. These mine trucks refused to give up their single lane of bitumen and each time I was bullied into the dust. I looked like a ghost. 

           Finally the downhill came and not soon enough. I was spent but suddenly felt rejuvenated as I freewheeled onto the fertile river flats. Nearby farmers bent low, buffalo starred blankly and ducks were busy feeding on the remnants of the last crop. It was far more industrious, far more fertile than all I had seen in Laos where it was more often small family plots or forest gatherers collecting firewood. 

          The roads keeps getting better the closer I get to Hanoi which is great however it also means the trucks get faster and that’s not so good. Where size is the only road rule trucks are king, I am a long way down the food train. They blast their horn I startle and move over. 

               Eventually I make it into the large town of Dien Bien Phu. I’ve spotted a home stay and Mrs. Google weaves me through a maze of tiny back streets to a palatial home. My host, Yen shows me to my room and I ask about places for dinner. Come down at 7pm She suggests. I wash away the day’s road grime and front at 7pm. I’m expecting to be pointed towards a nearby cafe or restaurant but instead Yen walks me through town to her favourite noodle shop. We slurp away as she explains that her family like to have foreign visitors stay and expand their world. We sip a beer then walk some more before stopping at a modern coffee shop. This is my family’s coffee shop, she explains, we have a coffee plantation in the mountains. I nod like everyone at home has one too. When we get home Yen pours me a whiskey and announces that her mother makes the whiskey in the building next door. I start to do the sums. Yen is thirty, her family own a coffee plantation and a whiskey factory, why isn’t she married ? Yen is up early the next morning to make me a bowl of Pho and wave me goodbye with her family. What a great stay what hospitality.

           I arrived in Son La mid afternoon, a modern city after a string of sleepy trading towns all covered in a thin layer of dust and bored shopkeepers. Here was a town with night time lights and a modern hotel. I checked in and was offered a discounted massage. Hold your thoughts right there. My body is painfully stiff and the thought of soothing hands rubbing away that fatigue was intoxicating. I showered and headed downstairs where a young man directed me to a massage room.    

           My eyes darted about, yes there was a massage table but I was not expecting the large bath nor the steam cubicle. As I stripped a young woman entered the room her heavy false eyelashes fluttering and gestured me to the table. Her stretch miniskirt came with a deep v on one thigh showing me that she was at least wearing something underneath. Oh dear I thought. I lay on my stomach and felt the oil dripping onto my shoulders then my back. She began to rub, the long smooth strokes I was longing for didn’t come. Instead my tight muscles were being pinched and hard. This will stop I thought, besides I had no idea what the Vietnamese word for “stop” or “you are really hurting” was ?

          I lay face down then suddenly felt her spring onto the table and sit astride my back. My mind tried to frame this picture but the image wouldn’t come, maybe it was the incessant pinching ? Finally the pinching stopped only for her to begin chopping my shoulders like she’d watched her grandmother hack into a chicken. I scrunched up my eyes then I let out a low yow, she finally backed off. She gestured me to look up, a long steel bar was suspended from the ceiling. She sprung up onto the table again and gestured for me to lay on my stomach. Gingerly she stepped onto my tight legs and then began walking up and down me. In comparison with her pinching style this was tolerable yet my body was nervous that something would give, something would break. Besides it would take days to fill in the insurance form with diagrams, dates and locations.

            Her tightrope walk was her finale and I was quickly directed to strip and head into the steam booth. Then my world went cloudy and I began to sweat profusely. When I was sure she had forgotten me the door suddenly sprung open and through the steam I saw her pointing towards the bath. This would be a two person bath for Vietnamese but I pretty much filled the whole thing and sank down low into the warm water hoping I could hide. She was having none of this gesturing me to sit up. Pouring shampoo onto my head and shoulders. Her hands rubbing me vigorously, I felt like a child of two. She stood over me shower rose in hand telling me something, I’ll never know. Stand up she gestured and I stood whilst she washed the soap away and pulled the plug. She handed me a towel and began industriously cleaning the room. Phew, I’d survived, I’d barely had time to be embarrassed and the family name was intact. 

          Finally into Hanoi, the elation of reaching my destiny is also the trigger to feel completely buggered. I leave my bike with the concierge who’s looking at it like where is the motor and head up to my room. A soaking shower and I flop onto the most luxurious bed I’ve seen in some weeks. First thoughts are too simply give into it and sleep till morning then my stomach makes an announcement that food is urgently needed. I rest over the next few days and visit some of Vietnam’s big ticket tourist destinations. 

         I organised a day trip to Ninh Binh yet the bus doesn’t come so at the eleventh hour I find myself going to Halong Bay. I had planned to go in a few days so not a problem. The rutted single lane road of thirty years ago is barely a memory for these people. Today a three lane expressway zooms you the 150 kms without a single pothole. The only time you stop is to pay a toll. I am just as I’ll prepare de for the massive port terminal and the hundreds of boats bobbing about waiting for their passengers. We motor off towards the hundreds of craggy limestone islands dotted on the horizon. The natural beauty of the islands, the surrounding turquoise sea still dominates even with tour boats jostling each other as we try to moor. The days standout was the 45 minute walk inside Sung Sot Cave on Bo Hon Island. It was absolutely breathtaking, the main chamber able to fit thousands of people. Again showing nature can still amaze. The day flew by as we moved from island to island but the caves were the real standout for me. Lunch was a lowlight but maybe that was because they made a lot of noise about ‘the banquet.’ A word that puts fear into most Australians. It was dark when our boat finally found the port again and near nine pm when my hotel came into sight. 

          The following day I was taken South to Ninh Binh from Hanoi by my guide, Koi. Ninh Binh is inland, a maze of jutting limestone thrusts completely surrounded by water lily laced lakes. A thriving tourist industry has evolved rowing locals and foreigners alike around a circuit of caves and pagodas. It was a tranquil way to spend a morning although I was unfortunate enough to find myself sharing a small boat with a young fawning couple. Her self adulation was beyond comprehension. If she wasn’t taking snaps of her coffee cup ??? she was taking close ups of her painted finger nails with a blur of the limestone in the background. Yes, apologies to the world’s space scientists you are wrong. The earth axis in fact twirls from this girl’s backside. 

          With two days to go until I fly out I was becoming concerned as to the whereabouts of my cycle bag posted from Thailand. In Hanoi I was handed a letter from my hotel’s concierge saying it was in Vietnam but I would need to clear it from customs. I caught a taxi out to the airport and the customs warehouses set in the grubby wastelands beyond the airport. I clutched my documents, my return ticket to Australia and my passport. Each person I handed it too showed much concern then pointed me someplace else. Finally after an hour I was directed one km down the road. My supposed waiting driver had gone missing, sleeping somewhere shady, greedily eating noodles or chatting to other drivers. I trudged off, again much pointing elsewhere, finally a room with two uniformed officials and one tracksuit wearing facilitator. I knew immediately the uniformed two would both have glorious bureaucratic stamps waiting whilst the tracksuit girl would do the grubby work. 

            The conversation started off badly. Why did you send this parcel to Vietnam ?To which I thought I gave a decent explanation what with the bike riding and all. How much is the bag worth and how old is it ? It’s worth US$250 and is six years old. Do you know secondhand goods cannot be imported into Vietnam ? I looked blank she wore a seasoned pokerface, she had all the aces. I drew breathe to reply but she was ready, there is a solution… You can say it is new and pay tax on this item and you can take it away otherwise it is forbidden. I kind of smile trying to do some quick maths she knows I have no idea about the Vietnamese tax system. I look up, she has a piece of paper with a  figure, 2,200,000 dong or A$150. I nod, I need it to transport my bike.

             Immediately reams of paper start to churn. The two uniformed men begin stamping enthusiastically and a boy is sent out into the bowels of the warehouse. Money changes hands, funnily or not funnily my change comes from the tracksuit wearing girl’s own purse. Is this where the rest of my Dong will find a home. I get my bag but twice more I’m stopped as I try to leave. Twice more I must produce my wad of stamped documents, passport and receipt before being spat back out into the street. 

            The bag is heavier than I remember but it’s been double wrapped in Thailand. I lump it onto my shoulder and head back to where my driver should have been before, a km away. I find him and he begins to renegotiate our agreed taxi fare adding waiting time. Wrong, I’ve had enough of being done over and shake my head. You weren’t waiting when I needed a lift. The agreed fare not one Vietnamese Dong more. There is yelling in the street like I’d murdered his wife. I get my bag out of the taxi and trudge off. He suddenly realises it’s our original fare or nothing and ushers me back to his taxi. I’m livid he knows it. the smoke pouring out of my ears is a giveaway. As we drive back to Hanoi he suggests through Google interpreter that we patch things up over a bowl of pho. I laugh, he says no more. When we reach my hotel he tries to punch his figure into the visa machine. I refuse, eventually he gets it. What a struggle all the way. I guess most foreigners give in and pay all for a quiet life. He didn’t like me photographing his taxi licence on the dashboard either. 

The Vietnamese children always wanted to race me !

             I take the bike out one final time for a spin around the city’s lakes but I’m driven back eyes watering, throat rasping from the cloud of carbon monoxide spewing from five millions motor scooters. Yes Hanoi has five million of them whizzing about. I pack my bike carefully into the now more expensive but quite old bag. I’ve had a great trip, a fantastic trip. Every day I’ve met someone or seen something that gives me belief that the world and it’s people are generally caring towards each other. Don’t believe all you read in the papers.