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.



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, 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.


Those probably didn't need to be cleaned


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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…



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.


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.


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.


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.


Rice field and workers

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.


One of many gifts


Our new friend

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!




Wishing for shade

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.


A little shy

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 dreaded sign

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.


Beautiful scenery makes it easier


Construction and jungle

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.

Another day

February 18, 2013

When the alarm went off, Chandler and I leapt out of bed. We were in a hurry to get out of town. We loaded our bikes up before breakfast in case Crazy Lady tried to encourage us to stay another night. As we walked to the restaurant, we noticed “Hotel California” playing on the stereo and couldn’t help our nervous laughter during the “You can check out, but you can never leave” line. In the end, we got a solid breakfast, our passports back and slipped away without any interaction with Crazy Lady.

Our entire ride was spent on Highway 1, which means lots of trucks, motos, busses and honking. We don’t normally listen to music while riding, but we made an exception today. So, we put in our headphones, put our heads down and pounded out the miles with few stops and zero photos.

At this point, we should admit that Chandler has been doping. With his cough not getting any better, we got him some Salbuteral which is some version of or maybe the same thing as Albuterol, a kind of steroid. Chan is not a fan of taking any drugs usually, but this was some miracle stuff which virtually eliminated his cough by allowing his lungs to operate more normally. He was still pretty sick underneath the drugs at first, but since he was no longer exhausted from constantly coughing, he got better pretty quickly. He took the last of his ‘roids on the ride today, and was generally feeling pretty good, despite the less than ideal riding conditions.


Chandler on steroids

We checked into a small hotel in Hue with the kindest owners. After asking about the price of the room, they insisted we sit down and have a cold drink before looking at the room. The owner’s wife brought us homemade strawberry juice, which was absolutely delicious and refreshing. The “strawberries” were quite a bit different than what we’d call strawberries, they were more like shriveled looking blackberries, which were a little bit bitter, but infused with some sugar in ice water, they tasted divine.


Wonderful owners of Phong Lan

We spent the remainder of the evening in our room, with one exception of going out for dinner and Chandler going to the grocery store for some food for our upcoming ride along the Ho Chi Minh Highway. While he was out, he ran into Leonie waiting for the bus to Hanoi. I wish we had made it to town sooner so we could have hung out with her again!


Chan's beer



Hai Van Pass

February 17, 2013

While we had discussed Chandler wearing his new suit for the duration of the trip, we decided it would be better if it got sent home along with the souvenirs we had collected so far. This ended up taking a while. There were several forms to fill out with information about everything we were mailing and its value. The woman working the desk then packed everything up for us and taped every inch of the box. Nothing is escaping that package. Hopefully it gets home in a few months. At this point it was getting kind of late in the morning.

We went back to the hotel for breakfast before hitting the road back to Da Nang. Although the hotel was pretty expensive by our standards ($20/night) they had a decent free buffet style breakfast, with fruit, fried eggs, baguettes, and best of all, peanut butter! We had a huge breakfast every morning, which gave us a lot more energy during the day and improved our moods in general.  The Grassland Hotel got a pretty bad rap on tripadvisor, but we’ve learned to take those reviews with a grain of salt, or usually disregard them completely. There seems to be a wildly huge gap between people’s expectations and what $10-$20 can really buy you regardless of where you are. Overall, it was one of the better stays we’ve had on the trip.

Having already done the route between Da Nang and Hai An once, we peddled quickly to reach new territory. We didn’t really have a plan for the day. Maybe we would stay in Da Nang again so we could do the 550 meter Hai Van pass in the cool morning or just grind over the pass  to get some distance out of the way and stay in Lang Co. We talked about our options while passing through  the north side of Da Nang that was clearly the more rundown section of town. Chandler was not inspired by the decrepit hotels we were seeing and I was not interested in conquering the pass in the mid-day heat. Eventually, we agreed to take a long break over café sua da.


Purple fishing boat


We wish we had a photo of the place, but it must have been one of the more dangerous cafés in the entire world. The canopy blocking the sun was anchored to a high voltage powerline tower, with a tangle of wires leading to junction boxes adjacent to the old lady’s makeshift kitchen. The whole place was jammed in a wedge of ground about 20 feet at its widest, bounded by the busy highway and the railroad tracks, which were at about eye level when sitting down. We didn’t really process any of this until our eyes adjusted to the shade. It turned out to be a great stop though. Between deafening passes of passenger trains, the old lady kept our pint size glasses of ice cold green tea topped off, and we added ice cube after ice cube to our coffees which started out nearly as thick as molasses. (These were later voted the best café sua da’s we’d had in Vietnam)


Starting to climb


The view

An hour later, we hit the road again to bike up the pass. The sun was burning up the sky but there was a cool breeze coming off the ocean. Hai Van was the first real pass we’d done in over a month and the first 50 vertical meters were killer. We decided to take water breaks with every 100m of elevation gain. Suddenly, the clouds came out and the traffic thinned to only motorbikes and lumbering fuel tankers since everyone else was in the tunnel bypass below. The cool and quiet really helped our stamina and we ended up crushing the pass! Motorbikes were waving and cheering us on, we felt so strong the entire time. When we got to the top, we both mentioned we felt like we could have climbed double the distance.


American bunkers at the top


Heading down the mountain

The top was beautiful but not relaxing. Immediately, peddler ladies descended, blocking our path, trying to sell us sodas, bracelets and mentos. We politely declined which got rid of most of them, but an old lady really tried playing the guilt card hard mumbling something about no babies, holding her hand out for money. We ate a quick snack of Oreos, drank some water and chatted briefly with one younger sales ladies who made one last ditch, half hearted and friendly effort to sell us a bracelet before we dove off the other side of the pass. Flying down the mountain, again we were cheered on by passing traffic. Someone actually videoed us for a while with their cellphone, which has happened a few times in Vietnam. Eventually, we joined up with the regular traffic coming out of the tunnel and biked into town.


Lang Co Beach

Our plan was to cruise through town to get the lay of the land and then pick out a hotel. We saw a couple that looked promising, when a woman on a motorbike pulled alongside me and stated she had a hotel. This happens all the time in Vietnam, so I didn’t think anything of it. Normally, the places people offer turn out to be dives and we pass. We were pretty tired, and the lady seemed OK, so we let our guard down a bit. The woman took us to one of the hotels we had passed by already, which looked OK. We asked about the usuals, hot water, wifi, a place to store the bikes, etc and she said yes they have everything and the price was right. It wasn’t the cleanest place, and it smelled a little bit, but we were exhausted and ready to shower and chill out, so we took it.

Once Chandler agreed to the room, her demeanor changed instantly which was a bit weird. Chan asked the price again and she raised her original quote by $5 “because of Tet”. Chan was a bit pissed at this point, as we’d already partially unloaded the bikes and locked them in another building. OK, we’ll go somewhere else. She agrees to the original price and helps us carry our bags to the room. Now she says, I come back and give you massage? She claims to be number one in town. No, I need a shower and to eat first. OK, she has a restaurant where we will have dinner. Hmm, sure, whatever. Please leave our room now.

We take showers, relax for a bit and forget about the odd interaction with the woman. The owner of our hotel in Da Nang raved about the cheap seafood in Lang Co, so we decided to walk around town and see what was offered. About 5 minutes away from the hotel and someone is honking at us and yelling for us to stop. Crazy lady has tracked us down on her motorbike and is demanding that we eat at her restaurant. We try and tell her we are just going to a walk to see the town, but she says we have to go back now and we can walk after dinner, in the dark. At this point we realized we had checked into the psychotel. We managed to get rid of her by saying maybe we’d come back later. She seemed pissed and we were now a little worried about our bikes and gear.

At this point, we really want nothing to do with her, the hotel or the restaurant. However, she has our passports (which is required at every hotel because they have to report to the police every night who is at the hotel) and we both get the feeling she is the kind of person who will try and sabotage us if we don’t play nice. We didn’t really find any great looking restaurants and as the sun was setting, we headed back to the hotel to grab some dinner. Crazy Lady was not around thankfully. The rest of the hotel staff were really very friendly and made us a nice dinner of noodles and vegetables that turned out to be really cheap. But where is Crazy Lady? At this point, we want her to see us eating at her restaurant so things will go smoothly in the morning when we need to leave. Finally she shows up on her motorbike, probably searching the streets for us, and sees us finishing dinner.


Attempting to relax

She invites herself to sit at our table and is now back to being happy Crazy Lady. She understands that we will be leaving early in the morning and since we already paid, she says she’ll give us our passports back that night. She made some casual conversation about our route north that actually turned into a devious attempt to sell us a map. Then she starts asking about the massage again, which once I decline, she decides to change her mind about the passports and will give them back after we eat at her restaurant in the morning.

Not wanting to deal with crazy any longer, we declare it bedtime. She then tried to sell us a bracelet of course. It was only 7pm, so we turn off the lights in our room and watch the new James Bond movie with our headphones so everyone will think we are sleeping. Morning cannot come soon enough. Moral of the story: Do NOT stay at the TRIEU VY Hotel in Lang Co.