Long ride to Savannakhet

February 24, 2013

We already knew that we wouldn’t find breakfast in this weird little town so we starting riding right away. Chandler was already hungry (he is usually hungry, or almost hungry) so we stopped at a mini-bus station a few kilometers down the road and he finally got some meat on a stick, which is so common throughout SE Asia. This was a whole chicken leg BBQ’d and tied to a stick. He passed on the skewered BBQ beetles, though they were a steal at 5000 kip ($0.60) for a baker’s dozen of them. Chandler gave the chicken a thumbs up while munching away at it as he rode along. We were also able to catch a big accomplishment on camera, 2000 miles ridden!

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Chandler's 1st breakfast

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2000 miles!

Soon enough we came upon a road sign pointing out a nearby attraction, dinosaur footprints. We followed the arrow off onto dirt road that led us to the river where a number of people were bathing. It wasn’t clear where we were supposed to go, but a friendly man clearly realized why two goofy looking white folks were wandered down his road and pointed up the river. We took turns staying with the bikes while the other went to look at the prints. Someone had spray painted red circles around the prints, otherwise I never would have noticed them. But upon further inspections, it was clear that they were in fact footprints of some sort. Chandler assumed they were velosaraptors, but most of his paleontological knowledge is from multiple viewings of Jurassic Park (AND he read the book), but there wasn’t any information on display, so who knows what made the prints.

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Looking for dino prints

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Dinosaur prints

Back on the bikes, the road condition quickly deteriorated and we were in the middle of road construction. Not only are crappy roads rough to ride on, but it is very mentally draining weaving around holes and oncoming traffic also weaving around holes. I wasn’t going to make it very far without something to eat and pulled off at the first restaurant. We had our usual breakfast of omelets and steamed rice (no coffee, so a pepsi was offered and accepted, $2.50 total) and were now more ready to tackle the construction.

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Lao surveyors

The construction lasted for about 20 miles when we reached a town with a guesthouse. It was hot out and the sun was broiling me alive. I made a comment to Chandler about stopping for the day, but he didn’t think I was serious. At 130pm, with 20 miles left, we hit another town with guesthouses. I made another attempt to stop for the day. At this point, we got into a bit of a disagreement. I wanted to take a break until it wasn’t so hot. Chandler wanted to either stay where we were in the little crossroads town or continue to Savannakhet. He didn’t want to take a long break and end up riding into a city as the sun was setting. Somehow it was decided we would get something cold to drink and figure out what we would do then, stay or continue. I pulled up to a place, but they only served beer. I was so hot, miserable and pissed off I continued to ride right out of town. I was pretty far ahead of him when I felt something hit my arm hard. I looked down and might have given off a girly little shriek, stopped and waited for Chandler to get the thing off me.

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My attacker

That helped lighten the mood. We found a store with a cooler off the road right away and had a cold drinks and some ice cream. We were both feeling much better and ready to finish the ride to Savannakhet. We rolled into town a little more than an hour later. We found a guesthouse, took showers and checked our email. We were both happy to be in a larger city, it had been a week since we had access to the internet.

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Finally made it to town

We set out for dinner pretty quickly after getting settled. The café we originally wanted to go to was closed, so we wandered around for awhile. We read that Savannakhet was quiet and not very touristy, but this was a bit of an understatement. The place was really quiet with parts of town feeling abandoned. Our Lonely Planet was outdated with most of the places listed to eat, not there anymore. We ended up at a French restaurant, which we later found out was the most expensive in town. It was worth it though. We got rolls with real butter and a big fresh salad. I had a bunch of small vegetarian morsels like stuffed tomatoes and a potato croquette, Chandler had tender beef served in a wine sauce. The meals were awesome, total bill $19. Budget blown, but feeling great we ended the evening with a walk along the Mekong River as the sun set.

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Sunset

A Slap in the Night

February 23, 2013

We woke up in wonderful moods and excited to cycle. We had a short day planned of only about 20 miles. When we rolled our bikes out of our room, we were surprised to see the sky was completely gray. My dreams were finally coming true! We headed back to the restaurant we ate dinner at and had a solid omelet and rice breakfast, minus the squid.

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War monument

The ride was easy going, rolling hills with a tailwind. We were flying down and up every hill. The scenery was not as lush as Vietnam, but still mountainous and beautiful. Children and adults called out to say “Sabaidee” to us in each small village we passed. Laos is the first country that people mostly greet us in their own language, not in English. It is surprisingly refreshing. We saw lots of goats and pigs wandering on the side of the road and sometimes in the road. We passed through a village where everyone seemed to be making charcoal. Tractors piled with wood that smelled like cedar frequently passed us, delivering their loads to the villagers. We saw piles of smoldering sand where they had buried the burning wood slowly transforming it into charcoal. Villagers with black hands raked the sand away from the finished piles, and extracted the blackened remnants of the wood. The charcoal towns were full of dense sooty smog and were not all that pleasant for riding.

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More goats

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Typical home and charcoal pile

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Another charcoal production technique

After a while we stopped at a café for some coffee and enjoyed watching some puppies wrestle with each other. We got to our original target destination after less than 2 hours of riding, but were still feeling fantastic. It was barely 1030am, so we decided to keep going for a little while longer. A little while longer ended up meaning that we would nearly triple our distance. We had entered a particularly rural stretch of the road and the only guesthouse we saw was abandoned. With the blanket of clouds overhead and a tailwind at our backs, we contemplated going all the way to the next day’s destination.

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Buddha

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Cute puppies

We were getting a bit hungry, so Chan stopped and found some local food products for our lunch. I turned this down, much to his disappointment.

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Squirrels for sale

In the end, we found a decent guesthouse in a random strip of development that seemed to exist only because of a small market that mainly sold parts for motorbikes.

It was another newly built or remodeled building, so the room was very clean. There was nothing around though. The only restaurant was closed and we didn’t have any fuel to cook with our stove. Chan walked around the market and besides spare electric starters and motorbike rims only found a pretty sad collection of wilted vegetables and the inevitable gray chickens. So, we dined on Ritz crackers, tuna, spreadable cheese and Oreos, which was becoming our signature dish. Knowing we would probably end up riding the entire distance of 110km to Savannakhet the next day, we went to bed early.

A few hours later we both woke up to loud, angry men’s voices outside our window. Chandler groggily asked me what was going on and I replied that people were arguing. Luckily all our gear was inside, including our bikes, so we just sat and listened. Things started to get really heated, with furniture being shoved around, then a glass shattered which raised the shouting to a crescendo. Next, we heard the dudes start slapping each other. The sound of open palm slapping is unmistakable. Any of our feelings of nervousness were gone. Chandler and I whispered words of confusion due to the unexpected turn the fight had just taken. Slapping? Really? As quickly as the fight started, it was over. Engines revved and cars peeled out of the parking lot. It was perfectly quiet and we fell right back to sleep.

Into Laos

February 22, 2013

If we weren’t so intent on getting out of Vietnam, we would have hung out at the hotel working for another day. We got up early, dressing in clean and dry clothing and tried to find breakfast. Again, we went to three or four different restaurants asking for bread and eggs. No, just the lovely grey chicken soup. How is it possible that there is only soup? We had no problem getting eggs and baguettes everywhere else, but not here in this strange place. We were both so frustrated with the situation- we just hoped there was something over the border.

We headed to the border and were immediately descended upon by the money changer women. The Laos visa is $35 USD per person which should be paid in US dollars for the best rate. Chandler was prepared to deal with ladies, knowing the current exchange rate and having a high end he was willing to sell our Vietnamese Dong for some bucks. The first offer was for 2,500,000 Dong for $80 USD. This is about $125 so, their first offer was a $45 overshot. Chan made a brief attempt at getting them close to the real exchange rate which yielded $5 deduction, which might as well have been a shot across the bow for Chan who had completely lost what little patience he had with this sort of thing after a few weeks in Vietnam. He gave them a polite “thank you very much” and pedaled off while they desperately and futilely called off counter offers. We’d have to deal with the official’s exchange rate, which couldn’t be worse than dealing with the scammer ladies at the border.

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Goodbye Vietnam

Getting stamped out of Vietnam was pretty straight forward. We tried to go through the wrong gate only twice, but everyone was pretty cool with our incompetence and we finally ended up at the right booth. The guard studied our passports quite intensely, then took them into another room for a while before returning them and allowing us to walk out through no-man’s land and through the Laos gate. The Lao visa upon arrival desk was deserted so we waited, and waited. There was a small group of women selling pirated DVDs, books and candy on one of the waiting benches in front of the border station. One of them encouraged Chan to push the sliding glass window open to grab the necessary paperwork we had to fill out. After we filled it all out, there was still no one in the office. Chan walked to the immigration office, but they were too busy playing solitaire on the computer to acknowledge him. We spotted a bank right across from the station on the Laos side and since no one seemed to care what we were doing, Chandler walked over and exchanged our Vietnamese Dong to USD and Lao Kip. The Lao tellers were super nice and even spoke some English. They exchanged the money at nearly the exact rate, and we basically only lost about 20 cents from the rounding. While he was away, I noticed an older man who was perusing the DVDs, selected a porn and then participated in a detailed discussion about his new film with one of the sales ladies.

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Hello Laos

Eventually, the official returned to his desk and gave us our Laos visas with zero trouble and we were on our way. There was a little casino right on the border with a restaurant that was open. We immediately sat down and had a delicious past due breakfast of Thai style omelets over rice. We ate quickly as we were excited to be in a new country.

The differences between Laos and Vietnam were obvious right away. There was less traffic and it was blessedly quiet. The affluence was gone but the people were much friendlier. We were immediately bombarded with smiles, “hellos” and “sabaidees” from everyone. It felt like a leaden vest had been lifted off us, with the constant traffic anxiety gone. Shop keepers were friendly and gone was the suspicious banter between the proprietors when we asked how much something cost.

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Giant pig at the gas station

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Cute Lao boys

Sepon wasn’t too far from the border, so we arrived in the early afternoon. Chandler had read an old blog that said there were only two options for lodging, but that info was clearly dated. We had at least a dozen of guesthouses to pick from. We found a brand new one on a side street that was still partially under construction. For $8, we had a brand new tiled room, with spotless white sheets and a huge comforter. There wasn’t any wifi, but this place ranked with one of the absolute cleanest placed we’ve stayed so far.

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Cleanest guesthouse in Laos

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Interesting bathroom tiles

We went through the normal routine of showers and relaxing before setting out in search of dinner. The first restaurant we went to was run by a Vietnamese woman who was not friendly and not interested in helping us. We got a little worried about what Laos was going to be like from the encounter with her. We walked up to the next restaurant and they ended up being really great folks.

I had kept my sign that Areeya made for me in Thailand on very first day of biking. Apparently the Lao written language is similar to Thai and the Lao people watch a lot of Thai TV, so we figured the restaurant owner would be able to understand my sign. My sign says: I am vegetarian, but I eat eggs, shrimp and fish. This means people interpret how they want to. The owner made us fried rice with veggies, egg and squid. Chandler loved it, (he declared it the best squid he’d ever had, not sure how much squid he’s actually ever had…) but I had a little trouble with the chewy texture and was not able to eat it all. It was still a very filling meal, and very cheap.

We left feeling full and happy to be in Laos. We really felt released from a lot of tension we had been harboring, and were so happy to be in a new place with really friendly people. We spent the remainder of the evening watching a show on Chan’s computer and reading.

Lao Bao

February 21, 2013

The border town of Lao Bao is only 19km away from Khe Sanh, so we took our time getting started in the morning. That meant sleeping in! Our hotel was a little on the dirty and creepy side, so we didn’t linger too long after waking up. We figured we could find something to eat on the way out of town. There is a large hotel in town that was mentioned on some of the hotel review sites, and is apparently where most of the package tourists get booked. We swung in there for breakfast. Chan walked into the dining room to see if they were open and found about 8 employees lounging around, some even laying on the floor. He made the international eating sign which consists of miming shoveling food into one’s mouth which was met with confusion, then shouting. It turned out the employees were trying to summon someone who could speak English. When she entered the room, Chan repeated his mime, and said “breakfast”, to which the lady shook both her hands in the Vietnamese way of saying no, and said “no breakfast”. We left a bit puzzled, looking back at the pack of lounging employees behind the glass window with the English words “breakfast café” written in decals.

We rode on and soon we were out of town. The riding was pretty much all downhill with a tailwind. We came across a North Vietnamese tank on display, which acted as good enough windbreak for us to eat a breakfast of Ritz crackers, peanut butter and processed laughing cow cheese out of our food cache.

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Tank

We rolled into Lao Bao maybe half an hour later and checked into a really nice hotel (Bao Ngoc, $13 highly recommended by us) which was recommended by someone on Crazyguyonabike.com, who stayed at the hotel next door and wished he hadn’t. Our first order of business was laundry. After the last two days of riding, our clothes was absolutely disgusting and in dire need of washing. We washed them in the sink with the fluid that looked most like soap in the two bathroom dispensers (after consulting our bottle of shampoo, we later realized we had washed our clothes with dau goi, not soap so we lost the 50/50 bet, no matter it did the trick) We strung up a line on our balcony and the clothes quickly dried in the strong wind.

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Those probably didn't need to be cleaned

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Shampooed clothes drying

With our chores done, we went out to find some food. We must have gone to 5 different restaurants and every single one was selling the exact same noodle soup. So, Chandler decided to have some soup while I ordered air. The woman running the stall took a boiled grayish looking chicken off a hook hanging in a glass case and hacked off one of its leg. She then smashed up its leg, bone and all and put it in a bowl full of broth, noodles and greens. I was suddenly very happy with my choice of air and we joked about the bout of food poisoning Chan would be dealing with later. Chandler smiled grimly as he slurped his chicken leg soup. Next, it was time for some coffee sua da. We figured it might be one of our last, and it turned out to be pretty good, fresh brewed from a little metal coffee filter they have that drips over a glass of condensed milk.

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Last coffee sua da in Vietnam

I wasn’t hungry so we went back to our room to get caught up on the blog. Chan continued to explore Lao Bao in order to resupply our food cache and to try and buy some US dollars to use to cross the border the next day. The town quickly revealed itself as a sort of post-apocalyptic bizarro-world. The town had seen an influx of cash in the early 2000’s as the Vietnamese attempted to pump the place up into an important special trade zone. There were several pretty huge shopping centers built, but apparently there were some bureaucratic problems with the actual economic incentives for consumers, and the place started to slowly die due to a complete lack of customers. While we were there, two of the three big shopping centers were vacant caverns, and the last was a depressing expose of merchants selling laundry detergent, booze, rice cookers and processed food like chips and snack cakes. We were unable to find any tuna fish or peanut butter, and fared rather poorly finding much else, with not a baguette in sight.

Chan’s next objective was to find some US Dollars so we could pay for our visas at the border. He visited all three banks in town and came away empty handed. The tellers apparently all looked at him as if he was asking them to sell him commemorative US quarters or something. He became mildly frustrated at the last bank, because they had a large digital display behind the tellers that showed the current rates that the bank bought and sold US dollars, but refused to exchange his Vietnamese money at any rate. He found a teller who spoke some English who explained that the bank could only buy US dollars, but was forbidden to sell them. When asked where he could buy US dollars in this town, she cheerily said, “oh at the border, there are many people selling dollars at the border”. Wonderful, the bank teller was telling him that he had to resort to the black market to get funds to cross the border.

He returned to the hotel obviously a bit pissed as he had just spent about 2 hours riding around accomplishing nothing in this strange town. It was clearly time to enjoy a beer or two and work on the blog together. We worked pretty hard and were able to finish up three entries. We have a good workflow set up for the blog. I take notes every day and then write the entries based on the notes as we go. After I work up a full draft, Chan then edits and/or adds to what I have written while I process the photos. I then add the photos to the text and publish everything online.

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Healthy dinner

Neither of us was interested in repeating the process of wandering through town looking for dinner. So, we had Ritz crackers, some canned tuna, and laughing cow cheese for our main course and Oreos for dessert. (While Chan was returning from his disastrous errands duty he saw a small case in the back of the hotel stairwell that had a random assortment of toothbrushes, tissues, etc and three packages of peanut butter/chocolate Oreos which he scooped up immediately, a major highlight of our stay in Lao Bao) We ended the night chatting with Chandler’s family on Skype and excited for crossing to Laos in the morning.

Ho Chi Minh Highway

February 20, 2013

We knew that there wasn’t much development along the stretch of the Ho Chi Minh Highway leading north from A Luoi to Highway 9. We planned on trying to find a place to camp before descending into the river valley where the two highways merged, though after surveying potential camping spots the night before, our plan was now a lot less certain. The air was very humid up in the mountains and our sweat soaked clothes had barely dried overnight, despite pointing the room fan directly at them. It was gross getting dressed, but we knew they would dry out some in the sun.

There was a restaurant next door to our hotel which served up some delicious fried eggs absolutely swimming in oil, along with fresh baguettes and café sua da. After the success of double breakfast yesterday, we decided to order seconds. While we ate, we were delighted to see big clouds in the sky and hoped they would remain with us the entire day. While we had a potentially big day ahead of us, we were excited because we could be on a portion of the historical Ho Chi Minh trail.

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The ride started out really well. Our legs were tired but not too sore and we knew they would get warmed up soon enough. The road headed north along the floor of a valley climbing slightly to crest a pass before quickly descending around 500 meters. Chandler and I were happy to biking in the mountains, as we have noticed this is the terrain we feel most comfortable in. We passed many steep jungle covered peaks which rose out of sprawling rice fields that covered the valley bottom. We knew that these mountains were some of the most fiercely contested ground during the Vietnam War, but for all the bloodshed and strife that this area saw in the past, there was scant evidence in the landscape now. In fact, this was one of the most beautiful and serene rides we’ve had on the trip so far. Surely the lasting impacts rest mainly in the minds and bodies of the older people in the villages we passed, though they showed nothing but cautious friendless towards us, waving and smiling as we passed by.

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After our big descent, we peddled up and down gently rolling hills while gradually losing the remainder of the elevation we gained the previous day. Soon, the clouds yielded to the midday sun and we were baking. I had thought my legs would eventually loosen up, but they remained tired and I was struggling to keep up with Chandler. I felt like my tank was almost empty by the time we got to the half way mark. We stopped for a snack to refuel.

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Once I start to focus on any discomfort, it is really easy for me to spiral out of control into a bad mood. We still had a ways to go, so I had to consciously divert my attention from my growing misery. Luckily, it was easy at times with the amazing views, and other distractions like the small groups of goats along the road, and a couple of dams under construction which gave me a chance to take the lead from Chan while he admired them…

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We passed a few decent looking campsites on the gravel bars along the river, but they were pretty far below the road and would have involved a lot of gear shuttling, so we kept cruising.

We reached the intersection of the Ho Chi Minh Highway and Highway 9 at 4pm, crossing a pretty nice suspension bridge over the Da Krong River that had supposedly been financed by the Cuban government. There wasn’t much at the crossroads, so we decided to make the push up the highway to Khe Sanh, which you might recognize from a line in “Born in the USA” by the very talented Bruce Springsteen.

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We stopped for a quick caffeine fix before charging up the hill. It wasn’t too bad at first. We were able to grind out the first 4km with ease; however I began to lose it after that. We had already completed 100km and only had 10km left, but it could have been another 100 for all I was concerned. My knees were crying out with every stroke, my rear was numb and I had no energy left. I was thinking that the ride the day before was a walk in the park compared to the sufferfest I was currently enduring.

Chandler stayed just far enough in front of me, that if I stopped, he would be out of sight. This is a good tactic for moments like the one I was having. I would keep going until I caught up with him. Finally, an hour later with the sun setting, we made it to Khe Sanh. An American military base in the town was the site of a ferocious and unexpected months long assault by the Viet Cong in the late 1960’s that directly preceded the Tet offensive. The US troops were ultimately routed ultimately abandoned the base in a controversial move that the North Vietnamese viewed as a major victory. Several billboards and monuments in the area appeared to commemorate this. Read much more about the conflict at Khe Sanh here.

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The hotel pickings were slim, but I did not care at that point. We checked in and took gloriously warm showers. Finding dinner was tricky. Nothing was open, except a sandwich shop and a restaurant with entire boiled chicken on the sign. Chandler bought a cake-like pastry from the sandwhich shop which ended up being covered in dried shrimp, not coconut as he expected. We had baguettes with cheese and some oreos for dinner. Tomorrow promised to be a blissfully easy day as we would ride less than 20km to the Vietnam-Laos border town of Lao Bao to resupply and rest.