The story of a day of two halves (and the day after, too)…
Sunday started damp in Vietnam, at the foothills of the mountains which form the physical frontier with Laos. It had rained most of the night, so the roads were wet. Which translates into dirty. But, by the time I was ready to go, the weather had decided to restrict itself to low, dark clouds. So I set off.
The road deteriorated into mucky dirt for a little while. Then it turned into a four-lane highway for a few hundred metres. Then it stabilised into a normal, average road. Gently rising through smaller and smaller villages. With very little traffic, which was a plus. If a little odd for one of the main routes between Vietnam and Laos. Maybe it’s busier during the week?
Then the climb began. I knew it was about a 15 km, 600-odd metre haul to the border. Which is just a little different from the Dutch-style flatness of the Vietnam coast, but I was prepared for that. Jens and Bjorn (the two German cyclists I’d met the night before) had said that the hill to the border was really steep on my side, but that I’d have a great run on the other side in Laos. So I was prepared for that, too. And in the end, it wasn’t too bad; three or four steep sections of around 10-12%, with decent stretches of false flat in-between to get my breath back.
What I wasn’t so happy about was riding more than half the climb in the clouds. Which really means light drizzle, with visibility down to less than 50 metres near the top. I ended up putting the high-viz jacket and lights on to give the logging trucks half a chance of seeing me. Several sections of the hill, where the surface had been removed for repairs, had deteriorated to mud and slimy puddles. One of the muddy puddles was deep enough for me to get my feet wet. Grr!
And, if I wasn’t happy about it, the Beastlet was even less so, as it clicked and ground its previously spotless drivetrain (and even the disc brakes) on mud:
I finally clattered and wheezed my way to the top of the hill to find the spookiest border crossing I’ve yet encountered. The visibility was down to maybe 20 metres, and I spent a while on the Vietnamese side circling parked trucks, shouting “Lao?” at the handful of ghostly figures who emerged from the gloom from time-to-time.
Eventually, I found my way to the apparently deserted border post on the Vietnam side. I checked a couple of empty rooms which might have been passport control. I began to worry that I might accidentally leave the country and enter Laos without even seeing an official, let alone having visas or stamps or anything in my passport. About the fifth ghostly trucker I asked finally pointed me to the passport desk.
I knocked on the glass to wake up the sleeping border guard (as you do), who dealt with my stamp very efficiently, and then, slightly bizarrely, offered me some chewing gum. I’m still not sure exactly what he was trying to say, but I was out of Vietnam. Almost.
There’s about a mile of no-mans-land between the two frontiers, with another huddle of parked buses and lorries, and a massive building, which I guess will one day be a new Vietnamese border post. It’s still completely deserted at the moment, but with near-zero visibility, cost me another few minutes trying to work out if I needed to do anything there.
I gave up in the end, and started down the hill, hoping to come across a border post for Laos. The clouds began to lift almost immediately. By the time I glided in to the well-staffed and friendly Laos border at Nam Phao, sorted out my visa on arrival, and had my passport stamped (all of which all only took about 15 minutes, but cost me an extra $2 because it was Sunday), it was dry, and the sun was threatening to put in an appearance.
By the time I’d negotiated my way around a comically aggressive miniature poodle, and got a couple of kilometres down the road, it was wall-to-wall sunshine. On a perfectly smooth, almost empty road. With a tailwind. That is a decent recipe for a big smile on a muddy cycle-tourist’s face.
And I even got a nice sunset, just after I got into Lak Sao, the first town of any size (or the last, I suppose, if you’re going the other way). I’d only been in Laos for a couple of hours, but I already liked it.
If the first impressions of Laos were good, yesterday (Monday) blew me away. I was only going 60-ish kilometres (still easing in to the ride, so not piling the miles on too hard). But what a 60 km!
The road from Lak Sao was stunning from the start, with mountains on both sides. There was still virtually no traffic. The sun was out, but up at around 400m altitude, the temperature was around 25C, and the humidity negligible. And after the permanent haze, diesel fumes and clammy dampness of northern Vietnam, the air was crystal-clear. Beautiful cycling in a beautiful country.
Towards the end of the ride to the little village of Na Hin (where I’m having my first full rest day of Part 2 today), there was a short, sharp 200 metre climb, with some properly steep (15% plus) sections. So I got a decent workout. And then, over the top, a superb, fast, twisty 400 metre decent to Na Hin. I nearly hit a snake and a deer (not at the same time), and I did hit 40 mph on a loaded touring bike for the first time in ages. An absolutely spectacular day’s riding. I’m still smiling now, just writing about it.
So, what next? Well, it’s nearly Christmas, apparently. In marked contrast to Vietnam (which left me never needing to hear Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’, or any form of dance-remixed carols, ever again), it’s no big deal here in Laos.
I’m thinking at the moment of riding through the big day to Vientiane (I should be able to get there by Christmas afternoon if I can get across the mountains to the Mekong river tomorrow; it’s less than 300 km in total), and then having a mini-celebration and another day off on Boxing Day.
But we’ll see. In case I don’t get another update in beforehand, I hope you all have a great Christmas. I’ll certainly update this again before New Year.
Meanwhile, I’ll be enjoying this spectacular country on two wheels. Which feels like a pretty decent present at the moment…