10,808 km so far.
Today was probably the most difficult ride of the past eleven months. We knew it would be tough and we prepared as much as one can. We had mapped the route, checked the elevation changes, read other cyclists’ accounts of the trip, double checked our weather apps, and set our alarm for 7:30am.
Our ride today was from Dien Bien, in Vietnam, to Muang Khau, in Laos. It covered 104 km, two mountain passes, almost 5,000 meters ascent, one international border crossing, a change in local currency, and 30C/90F+ with unforgiving sunshine.
Not only did we survive, but we had a great time struggling through it.
Not So Early Morning
As we were waking up Jane asked if she should post one more blog entry before we headed out to forage for breakfast. I agreed since I know by tonight we won’t have the energy or will power to post one, and I wasn’t really awake yet anyway. We should have got up then, as the day was just going to get hotter with each passing minute.
We left the hotel around 8:30 and wandered over to the local market, hoping to pick up a few bahn mi for breakfast, but we couldn’t find anyone selling them.
We walked through the market and down one of the main roads, but came up empty handed, and with empty stomachs. This may be the only town in Vietnam without tons of bahn mi sellers.
By this point, Jane wasn’t doing so well. Remember, she is recovering from just having been sick. Her eyes were hurting, and she was irritable. So, she went back to the hotel while I figured out what we would be able to eat.
I remembered a bakery we had walked past last night so headed there and grabbed a loaf of bread, picked up a fresh mango at the market, and headed back. With added mixed nuts and peanut butter, an edible breakfast was manifested. Whether it would sustain us over the first mountain and until lunch was to be seen, but at least we could get going.
Sadly, the bahn mi delay took some time, and we didn’t get on our bikes until almost 10 am.
The first 20 km were easy enough. We were quickly out of the city and into rice fields, surrounded by people working hard. The rice is much further along in the growing season than it was in Mai Chau and Tuan Giao. Here it is already a foot high and looks like fields of bright green grass.
Soon, the first climb began. It was a beast. Long, slow, and unforgiving. We climbed for 15 seemingly endless kilometres in the heat of the day, with few patches of shade to cool us down.
For about half the climb we were accompanied by dump trucks going back and forth to the quarry on the mountainside. They kicked up lots of dust, which stuck to our sunscreened arms and legs, got in our eyes, and coated our clothes, lungs, and bikes. A great start to a long day.
Fast and Laos
The border crossing is at the top of the first mountain.
Leaving Vietnam was a little slow, but uneventful. No less than four people (three border officials and one woman running a drink stand) offered to change our dong into kip. Later, we wish we’d had some dong to change, but for now, it just seemed strange.
We had heard we would be expected to pay “service fees” to the Laotian border guards and sure enough we were. Temperature Check: 5,000 kip (Laotian dollars). Weekend Surcharge: 10,000 kip. Want your visa and passport actually stamped? 25,000 kip, thank you very much. Add the $35 for a visa on top, and we ended up paying $83 USD for two visas.
This procedure wasn’t only layered in surcharges, it was also layered in delays. We were at the crossing for around 90 minutes, in the midday sun, knowing this would mean we’d have to struggle to finish our ride in daylight.
But first, we had an incredible 24 km of downhill after crossing through the border, which beat back some of the heat, dried our sweat, and gave us some sense that the climb up had been worth it.
Crossing into Laos was like entering a different world. The houses are simpler, there seemed to be little electricity in most villages, and water comes from a pipe off the mountain. People were using these communal water spouts to bathe, collect water to cook, wash the dishes, stop for a drink while walking along the road, and rinse their shoes.
The people are also quite different in appearance from the Vietnamese. They are darker, were wearing more revealing clothes than we ever saw a Vietnamese person wear (it is much hotter on this side of the mountain), and the children called out to us in Laotion instead of English, yelling “Sabaidee” as we rolled by.
We had no kip with which to buy anything, and none of the villages were large enough to have an ATM. Still, we knew we needed to eat before to second mountain. When we spotted a house that was locked up tight, we set ourselves up in the shade of their awning.
Our food pannier is pretty empty these days, but we dug out the last of our packaged vegan meat, got out our delicious Vietnamese banana chips, munched on some nuts, and tried to ration our water.
It wasn’t the perfect fuel for a mountain climb, but we’re lucky we had anything to eat at all.
Into The Heart Of Darkness
As we climbed, the sun began to dip behind the mountains in the distance, which meant the air finally began to cool.
It must have been pushing 100F for most of the ride, so we had been longing for this moment.
The cooler air helped us make it up the final ascent, and the light lasted long enough to get us to the top.
The small villages here don’t have power lines, and there are no cities nearby to light the sky, so when darkness falls it comes quickly. As we rode, villagers along the route started lighting campfires to cook dinner and keep away the evening chill.
We crested the peak, which was followed by a long descent into darkness: 20 km down a winding country road in the pitch black.
Fortunately my front light is particularly powerful, which helped light the road ahead for both of us, picking up the next curve in the road and highlighting the edge of the road, which was only a few feet away from the steep mountainside.
There was next to no traffic – one car and a few scooters were the only other vehicles, and the road was in excellent condition. This meant we could enjoy to cool night air as it whipped past us.
The biggest hazard we encountered on the descent was a herd of cows, lazily wandering down the middle of the road just around a dark corner. We had to make a hasty swerve to avoid ending up as a splat mark on the side of one very surprised cow.
It is amazing how quickly we can go from being excruciatingly hot, sweating, working to our fullest potential, all for 5 or 6 km/h, only to find ourselves a short while later flying down a mountain at speeds up to 56 km/h, chilled from the night air, the only effort being the mental acuity needed to read the road in the darkness, and keeping our hands on our brakes.
The road was long, the hills were mountains, and lunch was dug out of the bottom of our bags, but the scenery was outstanding, the people were inspiring, and the ride unforgettable. We are so fortunate to be on this trip, to be able to take this adventure.
Even though some days are tough, the exertion, the challenge, and the sore muscles are easily outweighed by the sheer pleasure we get from immersing ourselves in life.
Soundtrack: Jimmy Buffet, Fruitcakes | Soloina, a Blur playlist of mine | Calexico, Hot Rail | The New Pornographers, Electric Version | Radiolab podcast ♥