To do another 100 mile day we thought would be unachievable at the start of this challenge, but with good roads…well! Everything was ok for the first 20 miles, apart from the oily, coal sooted streets made us and the bikes look like a couple of seagulls caught in an oil spillage. The roadside cafe came to the rescue when they understood “omelette”, but when rocks started appearing in the middle of the road, and turning a sharp corner onto mud covering it didn’t look good. This unfinished road surface was like cycling on sticky parcel tape, and where it turned shiny the bikes were sliding like ducks on an iced pond.
I looked up just as Jon’s bike slid from underneath him and he faceplanted the muddy surface. Reggie’s front wheel had as much tread as an Indian truck, and he now had a broken bent handlebar to match. Jon looked like he had been mud wrestling and understandably was a little shaken up. At 4.30pm with just 1½ hours of light left, we still had 38 miles to go – the daily average of 8mph so far meant another 4-5 hours of cycling and nightime riding which I hate, especially with only cookies and sour sweets to keep us going.
Now a two badly tanned cyclists is like a couple of T-bones to the wild dogs and boy did we soon know it. Apart from the traffic danger on the Alex-Cairo desert road, this was the most terrifying cycling of the challenge. Every little bark got louder and louder as dogs raced towards us across the landscape – all we could see was their eyes in the darkness, until they were at our heels barking and foaming like they were possessed. We needed a few selected kicks, but on the whole a good English shout of “F**k Off” seemed to do the trick and we ploughed on.
The city of Mong Cai couldn’t come quick enough, and we located a hotel close to the border control for tomorrow’s crossing into China. I hope the food gets better as we had to make do with another night of fast food chicken!
Hurrah – on with the cycling today Turkish! Just a small matter of 100 miles and navigating through a million motorbikes on a gloomy day in Hanoi. Thank you to all the staff at Moevenpick – we were probably their most demanding guests yet, and the cherry on top had to be us making sandwiches at the breakfast buffet alongside posh Americans on their Asia cruises.
We were really noticing the humidity today, so the pollution and dirt from the roads stuck to us like glue, but we made good ground and especially helped by the gaggles of giggling school girls we passed on the way.
The town of Halong looked bleak when we arrived, and didn’t improve after we found our hotel. Searching for food, all we could find was ropey pavement kitchens (stoves, woks and a few dirty chairs) and a fish restaurant which didn’t have a menu, just a few buckets of live fish on the roadside who didn’t look particularly happy about their impending slaughter. I don’t fancy naming my fish before eating it! We didn’t fancy either, so had to make do with the worst fried chicken we’ve ever had, and then supplemented with tuna sandwiches and crisps in the room – basic!
20th – 22nd February
We don’t want to moan – there are definitely worst places we could be waiting for a wheel than at a 5* hotel, and with concierge at the ready, we certainly utilised their services. From sending someone around Hanoi looking for a bike shop who could change the gear cassette onto the new wheel, collecting buckets and sponges to wash the bikes, and helping with directions for the tenth time, we were soon the talk of the hotel staff!
We used Sunday to do a bit of sightseeing – never seen so many motorbikes as we visited the ancient literature museum and Ho Ming’s temple (old ruler), upset some ladies carrying baskets of bananas by getting photos with them, and then sought sanctuary in the only place we could understand what we would be eating (we hope!) – KFC.
We successfully extended our stay by speaking to the manager (we were taking the mick out of his pastel pink golf outfit at breakfast yesterday!), and he arranged a quick photoshoot for us before we leave tomorrow.
18th – 19th February
We were slightly relived when our lift arrived to take us across the border, although we spent the first 3 hours of the journey gazing out of the window at the perfect sweeping cycling roads which followed a windy river through the hills. Passing through the villages we saw crowds of kids knowing that two badly tanned cyclists would certainly brighten their day. We should be cycling – this sucks! No “sabaidees” or warm smiles – instead we were narrowly missing squashing goats, babies, chickens and pigs. I gasped as we actually went over the top of a black puppy, fortunately the high wheel base of our 4×4 meant that the puppy could see another day.
As fate would have it the conditions soon turned nasty, when we arrived to a road submerged in water and we had to cross with the help of a tugboat. From there, the road went from bad to worst, and we were now not only glad we weren’t cycling, but simply wouldn’t have been able to. Thick sand and rocks covered the road for the next 15 miles, and then the road literally ran out! Even the 4×4 was struggling – we were in amongst diggers and labourers, who were still carving the road through the hills.
Lots of lost brain cells later from banging our heads on the rollcage, we made it to the Vietnam border, where we stood shivering while trying to explain why we had two passports each. People travelling by bus, stood by fires made from bits of cardboard lying around, as they tried to keep warm in the damp, cold mountain air, while staring with bemusement at two badly tanned cyclists in shorts and t-shirts! Bonkers conkers!
Our driver took us as far as Dien Bien Phu, the first town inside the border where we could catch a connecting bus to Hanoi. Keen to get the hellish journey done as quickly as possible, we jumped straight on a bus. Unfortunately this meant no time to get food, just enough time to get some cash out and take a quick leek in what was undoubtedly the worst toilet I have ever seen. It looked like a herd of elephants had passed through, following a hearty feast.
The bus journey wasn’t much better – crying babies, old Vietnamese men hocking up greenies and seriously annoying grinding pop music blasting out of the speakers. It was clear any kind of sleep was out of the question. Despite not being entirely sure what the exchange rate was, Dom began arguing (rightly so) with them trying to charge us the same price as a seat for each bicycle, but it turned out to be an hour long, language stalemate over £3.
At least dinner was included – we stopped at a roadside shack, sheltering from the rain with rice and a few other dishes laid out. One of them looked a lot like sliced spring roll, so I tucked in to discover that it was a finally sliced chicken, bones and all! Another dish was some unidentifiable rubbery meat – best avoided. Our luck did change when I received a text confirming that the Tapkens had arranged a room for us at the 5* Hanoi Moevenpick – get in!
We were dumped at Hanoi bus station and not knowing where in the city we were, and how far from the hotel, we found ourselves in our next mission of trying to arrange a large taxi at 4am, and we were pooped! All we could see was pony little Daihatsus which would have struggled with our tent, let alone with two bicycles and 8 items of luggage! Luckily we were helped by a Vietnamese girl who said she was trying to improve her English, but I think that was an excuse as she clearly fancied Dom. And after chasing a 7 seater taxi down the road in our flip flops, we got ourselves to the hotel, and just in time for their international breakfast buffet – fan-kin-tastic.
The only small problem was that the expected wheel hadn’t been delivered yet – at least its Friday, so should turn up this morning. Wrong! We’re still hitting hurdles – because of Chinese New Year, customs weren’t working today, and although we can see that the wheel has arrived in Hanoi (via Manchester, Frankfurt, Hong Kong and Bangkok) it can’t be delivered until Monday. This is so frustrating – we just want to get on with the cycling!
A forced rest day meant we could catch up on some admin (especially route plan Mexico in detail), but what we thought would be an easy solution of getting a bus to Hanoi wasn’t! Struggling through the language barrier at the Tourist Information office, with lots of scribbled maps and pointing, we established that we would need to catch 3 different buses to get to Hanoi and Ronnie and Reggie would be on three different bouncing, banging roofs. This is going to trash them.
So our other option would be to get a taxi – surely we could negotiate a deal with a tutuk or a people carrier! Well they didn’t have a Timbuktu what we were going on about – god this is hard work! Luckily a cycle shop came to the rescue with the owner’s nephew agreeing that he would drive us in a 4×4 jeep to Dien Bien Phu where we could get one direct bus to Hanoi. But not without having to settle on paying $250 – well annoying knowing that the buses are only about $40, but at least the bikes should be in one piece.
A monster of a day with 4,200ft of assent, so we started early, and we were actually cold for the first time in a couple of months when we noticed a big drop in temperature. Every bump and dip in the road was even more noticeable as I tentatively tried to protect Ronnie’s cracking wheel, but a third of the way when we turned off the asphalt and onto unpaved road, with Ronnie’s spokes creaking up the inclines, our worst fears were realised that this would be our last day of cycling in Laos. Such a shame, especially with all the kids running through their villages smiling and shouting bye bye as we cycle past – really gives us such a lift.
We no longing were hoping to wing it to Hanoi, now we’d be lucky to see it through the day! Another puncture for Ronnie wasn’t helped when a Spanish cyclist stopped at the worst possible time to investigate, but we did take some comfort knowing that he was the guy we’d heard about who couldn’t make it up a hill 2 days earlier (which we nailed) and had to lie down on the pavement waiting for a lift. The last 20km of unpaved rocky road went on and on, and resembled trying to cycle along a train track – not the best place for our touring bikes.
Arriving at the hotel, we needed some quick thinking to arrange for a new wheel to be sent from UK to Hanoi – they are stored at Jeremy’s, but unfortunately it couldn’t be picked up today, so DHL were booked for tomorrow, and we took a gamble on being able to stay at Moevenpick, putting the package for the attention of the general manager! He who dares…
Today we had a short ride to Luang Martha but not a good start after some puncture mincing and then had to make do with some vegetable noodles for breakfast. Jon was happy though because he got some gold footage of about 100 school children with colourful sun umbrellas and even managed to “lao five” a monk! The comedy moment of the day was when Jon pulled over to speak to a 75 year old Ali G style cyclist with luminous shorts and shades to match with a wheelie suitcase as his rear pannier. Later we were still kicking ourselves for not getting a photo but were too busy laughing.
Shame the luxury guesthouse was full but at least we got them working when they offered to still do our laundry – little did they know, “that is some seriously funky sh*t in there love!” Picking up an email from our bike mechanic, Jeremy after we asked his advice about the buckle, he said “please don’t ride that wheel anymore, it’s definitely been compromised & could totally fail at any moment.” We tried in vain to get a new wheel for Ronnie but it clearly wasn’t happening as the only places available were mountain bike rental shops. We are going to give it another day and assess from there.
As our energy levels were low we headed off for some much needed food – in fact we ordered so much food that chef had to come out for a tea break half way through!