10,339 km so far.
There is a serious set of mountains between Hanoi in Vietnam and Luang Prabang in Laos. Being slightly insane cycle tourists, we’ve decided to ride right over the middle of them. Today is the first day of about a week’s worth of big climbs. It’s been a long time since we did any extended hill riding or mountain climbing, and the elevations over the next few days put anything we’ve done thus far to shame.
You’ve been forewarned. This blog is liable to contain a lot of complaining about hills for the next 7 or 8 days.
Into The Mist
It was another misty drizzly morning. What else is new? We are so completely used to this weather now that we don’t even think about it. After all, there’s not much we can do to change it.
I had been expecting a largely flat day with one big push near the end, so imagine my disappointment when the climb started only a few minutes after we left town. It really didn’t stop until we were almost at our destination.
With great climbing comes great views, and today was no exception.
We passed through village after village placed against a backdrop of endless rice fields and towering karst landscapes. It would have been more enjoyable on a clear day, but the fog lent a certain mystique to the ride.
It also lent a great deal of vehicle exhaust, since with the heavy fog and complete lack of wind, the black fumes emanating from almost every truck that passed just clung to the road, then proceeded straight to the inside of our lungs.
Someone really needs to set some emissions standards here.
Going up was tough, but the village children helped us out, with shouts of “hello” echoing along the road as we cycled past. We do our best to answer every one, but sometimes we miss out on a reply. I always feel a little guilty when this happens, as if that one child will feel cheated for having made the effort for no reason.
We were both a little fuzzy on the details of the elevation profile for today, so we weren’t exactly sure how far the climbing would take us, or when it would stop.
About 30 km from Mai Chau, our destination for the night, we stopped for lunch on the edge of a tiny village. What we thought was a simple restaurant turned out to be a rather large outdoor restaurant, where you might hold your wedding party or take a busload of tourists.
The tourist theory was borne out when we discovered that one of the staff spoke perfect English. Never mind, they made us a hearty, if expensive, lunch before sending us on our way.
Since we were so close to Mai Chau, I assumed the hill climbing must almost be over. Turns out we hadn’t seen anything yet. The real climbing kicked in, and we soon realised our pre-lunch uphill had just been child’s play.
As we ascended, the mist got more and more dense, until we were riding in a thick fog. We were aware that there was a huge cliff leading to an immense valley just a few feet to our right, and that the mountain rose up to the left of us. But we couldn’t see a danged thing.
We were able to hear trucks and cars long before we could see them, and we learned to listen to the height and direction of the sound, to give us some indication of what lay ahead on the road. If you should be passing this way in similar conditions, I’m about to spoil it for you.
What lay ahead was a very high mountain.
We stopped for a break at a roadside rest stop, which was clearly there because of the spectacular view it afforded. It was full of tourists taking snapshots and vendors vending.
Here is a picture of the beautiful view.
Nope, we ain’t seen nothing yet.
Finally we reached the summit. We still couldn’t see a blessed thing.
“I’ll give you a head start for the downhill,” I said to Stephen, and watched him push off into the mist. He got less than 20m before I could no longer see him, despite his bright taillight.
Coming up with no visibility was OK, since we never went faster than about 7 km per hour. Going down was another story. If you’ve ever been caught skiing in a white out, you’ll have an idea of what it was like. We sped down the road, not really knowing how steep or how tight the next corner would be. I used my brakes far more than I would on a normal descent.
After a few minutes we came out of the clouds. A warm wind gusted up from the valley below to our chilly mountainside location. It was like an industrial dryer blowing into in a walk-in fridge. We weren’t sure whether to be hot or cold, but soon, we left the mountain chill behind and entered a warm and pleasant valley.
Entering Mai Chau is astonishingly beautiful.
A narrow road winds its way through hundreds of rice paddies. It’s planting season, so the fields were busy with families all up to their knees in the mud, transplanting row upon row of bright green tufty rice plants.
Finally, this is what we expected from Vietnam.
When we reached the town, we decided to ride straight through to get the lay of the land before deciding where to call it a night.
We passed a few ho hum guesthouses but nothing really struck our fancy. Then a man on a scooter rode up beside Stephen, asking him if we were looking for a place to stay.
He directed us to the homestay he runs with his wife, and since we were going that way anyway, we decided to check it out. It is in the village of Ban Lac, just a kilometre outside of Mai Chau. A kilometre can make a huge difference.
The village is filled with the traditional bamboo stilt houses. An impossibly tiny lady and her three daughters met us outside the home and encouraged us to come in and look around.
The bottom floor is almost entirely open to the elements. There is an eating area for guests in front and a food prep area / garage in the back.
Between these two was a tiny room where the householders and their children all slept, at least while they had guests upstairs. The kitchen was in a small shed at the back of the house, and I believe they did all the cooking on a coal fire.
The bathroom consisted of three outdoor sinks, a toilet stall (with Western toilet), and a shower stall.
The upper floor is created by slats of unrolled bamboo laid across rafter-like beams. There is a good half-inch of space between each sheet of bamboo, so there are also some bamboo mats rolled out for privacy.
Our mattress, and the mattresses of fellow guests, are on the floor. There is also a mosquito net (our first one!) to keep the pests away.
At 300k VND, including our dinner and breakfast, it seemed like a good deal for a great experience.
Plus, the family is so nice, we just couldn’t say no. Especially when they told us that there is also WiFi. Really? WiFi in this remote traditional village in a bamboo hut? The world really has gone insane.
After a nice dinner of the same foods we’d eaten for lunch (there’s not much variety to be had here, even for meat eaters), we took a stroll around the village.
It wasn’t until then that we understood the scope of the tourist attraction. Down the hill, we found scores of tourists, sitting outside their own homestays, enjoying displays of traditional dance, milling around a bonfire, singing (terribly) at karaoke, and browsing the dozens of tiny shops selling woven scarves, purses, dolls, and other trinkets.
A huge amount of money and effort has obviously gone into creating this welcoming, almost authentic experience to bring tourists to the region. This is exactly the sort of thing we were hoping for in China, but never managed to find.
We fell asleep to the sound of a chorus of frogs from the nearby rice paddies, and the snorting and snoring of the pigs who live behind the homestay.
It’s a great place to stop for the night, and another reminder that we really are in Vietnam. ♥