February 19, 2013
We were a little tempted to stay in Hue for a leisurely day, but gradually talked ourselves into biking. Having had a pretty dull ride along the highway, we decided that was not what we wanted to do for the next couple of days before we made a left turn into Laos. The alternative route was a bit longer and would take us a few hundred meters up into the mountains to meet the Ho Chi Minh Highway. We had an extra big breakfast as we would have two steep climbs to accomplish before getting up on a plateau where there would be a place to stay. As we were checking out, the owners presented us each with bracelets for luck and two magnets of traditionally garbed Vietnamese couple. As I said before, these were the kindest people and the Phong Lan was a really wonderful hotel.
We said our goodbyes and left with warm feelings for Hue. About 4 miles later, when we were finally out of town, Chandler realized we had forgotten our passports at the hotel. In the gift giving excitement, both the owners and we forgot about the passports. We decided it would be quicker if Chandler sprinted back unloaded while I waited in the shade with his panniers. So, I took photos of some ladies working in a rice field. I adjusted how one of my panniers fit on the rack and made sure everything else was tight on the bike. After a little while a motorbike came screeching to a halt next to me. One of the hotel employees had driven all the way around in a loop looking for us and was so happy to finally see me. The owner of the hotel had made a similar circuit to the north looking for us too. We chatted for about 5 minutes when Chandler rode up with both passports and a big bottle of waters from the hotel.
At this point it was 1015am and were hoping we wouldn’t be caught on one of the passes midday. Just as we are back into the groove, a man on a motorbike pulls up alongside Chandler and starts up a conversation. He speaks really good English and offers us some tea at his farm. We are already so late in the day, might as well. We end up spending over an hour chatting with him at his farm where he grew medicinal herbs that he sold for Chinese medicine. He joined the military as a teenager and worked with the Americans during the war. He insisted that we needed energy and offered us fruit, tea and a beer because we are on our honeymoon. He kept giving us gifts, we got worried whenever he would go into his house and bring something out with him. A little before noon, we said another round of goodbyes. He wished for our first born child to be a son and we wished him a happy new year and good luck with his farm.
Finally, we were back on the road with a lot of miles ahead and at the worst part of day on top of that. But, we weren’t too concerned because we were feeling pretty refreshed and revived after our little break. The moment we started peddling, the sweat started pouring out of me. There was no shade on the road and barely a breeze. Up and down, up and down, we biked over the never ending rolling hills. We stopped often to drink water and made up a batch of our new favorite, Tang!
Despite the heat, the road was in good condition and the climbing was pretty concentrated. Either we were on flat or going up a 10% grade. We were even lucky enough to have shade for the first big climb. Around 3pm, with a 500m climb ahead of us, we were completely out of water and there was not a discrete place to camp. Chandler approached a very small shop selling warm beer and asked to fill our 4 1.5liter bottles while I entertained some kids unsure of the camera. The woman of the house was so generous- she filled all our bottles and absolutely refused payment.
When we approached the final climb of the day, a sign said it was 15km at 10% grade, I thought I would start crying. I was so tired already. How would I ever make it to the top? We decided it was a good time for a snack. At this point, Chandler and I were both covered in sweat. Our shirts were completely saturated and there were no dry areas. We had to keep it together to get to a hotel.
The sign was inaccurate for the first section of the hill, it was more like 12+%, borderline unrideable, then we went back down, lost the hundred or so feet we had just gained, and a bunch of our morale. Next we went right back up again another very steep section in a construction area with lots of loose gravel. Suddenly, my left peddle started feeling wobbly and then the whole left crank arm fell off onto the road.
Chandler explaining the technical problem, feel free to tune out: The bike shop back in Phnom Penh had misdiagnosed the bike’s persistent clicking as the crank being loose (which we later figured out on our own was actually the pedal bearings ) and told us the black end cap on the Shimano hollow tech II crank was “way too loose”, and they had cranked it down. We later found out that the end cap wasn’t really even needed as it fell of my bike unnoticed, and what really holds everything together are the two bolts that pinch the crank arm onto the shaft that passes through the bottom bracket. The little cap just preloads the crank arm against the bottom bracket bearings, analogous to the cap that sits on top of the stem on a bike with a threadless headset. With the end cap cranked down, it had partially cracked, and then, the pinch bolts were not tightened enough. The little plastic cap was holding the whole thing together for miles and miles and when it finally snapped in two the pedal flew off and stripped the little splines inside the arm pretty well. A bit pissed with the bike shop in PP, which catered to westerners and our “fancy” bikes, but I should have checked on the pinch bolts myself. Moral of the story is: repair work here is unreliable in general and it’s best to take some time getting to know how your bike works in case your pedal falls off while climbing a 15km 10% grade hill in the middle of nowhere.
Starting up again with the pedal back where it belongs, we wondered what else was going to stall our progress. There was very little traffic, mostly just motorbikes at this point. We were moving slowly because of the crappy road condition and I was daydreaming about flagging down a truck to transport us to the top. Luckily, the scenery was beautiful, the road grade had decreased and we were able to just grind along. Our backup plan was to camp out when we got tired or it got dark, which is fine with us, as we have pretty comfortable camping equipment with us. What we didn’t factor in is that the last 15km of the road to the Ho Chi Minh Highway clung to the side of a steep valley with a river 200 feet below, and nothing but steep, steep full on jungle on either side of the road. With Plan B tossed, it was back to the original plan of making to A Luoi even though it was already on the verge of getting dark.
As the sun was setting, we peddled onto smooth pavement and encountered even less traffic. It wasn’t quiet though, soon we heard lots of jungle animal noises which reaffirmed our decision to push onto A Luoi. Then it was dark and we could only see what our front lights illuminated. The climbing became much easier at this point. I couldn’t make out the terrain ahead of me and had to focus on just the 6 feet I could see.
All of the sudden, we found ourselves going downhill which lasted all the way to A Luoi. The street was even lit! We immediately started high fives for completing the challenge. We found a decent hotel with a restaurant attached. After much needed showers, they cooked us some vegetables and noodles and it tasted amazing. Bedtime.