Many thanks for visiting Walksworld blog. I am now conducting the lions share of my blogging on my new blog, Painted Roads.
For more images and stories of a life travelling through SE Asia with a camera please visit www.paintedroads.com/blog
Should you be interested in joining me on a cycling adventure through Vietnam, Thailand or several new destinations soon to come please visit www.paintedroads.com
All photographs shot with an Olympus OMD-EM5 using either an Oly 45mm f1.8 or Lumix 20mm f1.7 lens; undoubtedly my favourite two lens. Post processing with Aperture and B&W conversion with Nik Silver Efex.
Back in Hanoi now after a very successful inaugural Painted Roads adventure cycling tour I am still up against puzzling censorship so far as this humble blog is concerned. As mentioned before, the Painted Roads blog does not suffer the slings and arrows of communism v’s FaceBook and WordPress and so that is where I am blogging my recent images.
The question was raised recently ‘how am I posting this if it is blocked?’ I am using third party software that somehow skips merrily through the firewall but I am unable to view the post or tidy it up. So for some pics of NE Vietnam please visit the Painted Roads blog which is hosted on my brother’s server.
all images taken with Olympus OMD-EM5 and Lumix 20mm f1.7 lens
WordPress is still blocked here in Vietnam, after all how can one expect to maintain all those happy communist worker smiles of a million posters if the peasants can read WordPress blogs? Through much cunning wizardry though I have managed to post this picture. For a few more pics from my present North East Vietnam tour please have a look at the Painted Roads blog, a blog considered to be such an import end moral booster for the local workers that it is allowed to sneak through beneath the red radar.
I felt the motorbikes was a little unstable as we weaved through the hectic bedlam that is the traffic of central Hanoi. Nowhere else os there traffic quite like this. Condider the haphazard movement of ants, magnify it to human size and put it all aboard little Honda motorcycles and you begin to get the idea. On my lap between Phong and I was a box of groceries weighing 15 kilos, this put me way back behind the rear wheel, but stability was somehow brought back in the direction of normal by the 10KG of shopping betweens Phong’s legs. As we wobbled and weaved our way back to HQ (in this case my hotel room) I found myself chuckling to myself like a fool. I am in a fascinating city with a fine friend about to set out on a beautiful journey with a group of great people, life is indeed jolly splendid, and Painted Roads is go!
For more about Painted Roads bicycle tours and to follow the story of our journey through the magical mountains of Vietnams remote North East please do keep an eye on the Painted Roads Blog.
Through the sorcery of Apple Macintosh, Google and WordPress I am aware that despite my blogging absence a few folks have been checking in on Walks World over the past few weeks. That I have had little to say or show I apologise for, but, despite what you may believe, I have not been idle.
Over the past few years my future has been in a state of flux as my desires and imagination have flitted dramatically between passions and needs. To once again load a bicycle with stove and pot and tent and bedroll and head out into the Himalayas or Andes for a prolonged spell of living wild and free, testing myself against that most ardent, ferocious, beautiful and respected of adversaries, Mother Nature, was a strong pull. At the same time after 12 nomadic years I often find myself becoming tired with never knowing where I will next find a pillow, where I will eat, with whom I will next talk, or sleep. I have for two years – perhaps more – had a recurring fantasy of walking through a door in to a place that I could call home for a while; put a disc on the gramophone, pull the cork from a bottle and flop onto a big comfy cushion on the veranda. On the wall behind me hang my own photographs, before me a beautiful mountain vista. These two desires are of course poles apart and I well know that I am too long in the tooth to be able to settle into permanence in either of these life styles. Life is actually pretty cosy and has been for a long time but every now and then the need for change comes along.
The job I have been doing has suited me. I enjoyed it well and it gave me all I needed, freedom, human company, adventure, travel, cycling. I also enjoy indulging in a little creativity, photography and writing; exploring and creating new routes, sharing my passions with others. Tour leading allowed me to indulge some of these pursuits but not all. In my spare time I explored and created routes not because I had an outlet for them, but because I enjoyed doing so. I wished to share the tours I had created in much the same way that an orchestra desires an audience, because I loved what I was doing and wanted to share it with others. And so it was that I considered running my own tours. I have actually been playing with the idea for many years. Anyone who knows me and remembers the Osmosno blog and website may well be aware that Osmosno was originally conceived to tailor make adventure tours in Asia and South America for the discerning customer, alas is never went beyond the planning stage as we enjoyed reconnoitring routes, photographing them, and writing about them, but we never got around to the business side.
And so it could have gone on, but as is so often the case with life the twists and turns of fate were at work. Last year I created two tours, one in Vietnam and one in Thailand, this year Phong and I created another new tour in Vietnam. Several years ago I planned a route through Yunnan Province in China, that is a region that is particularly close to my heart and very much needs sharing. Having lived worked and played in Nepal I have a great fondness for the natural splendour and the ever friendly Nepalis; I have good friends with whom I can work and I have, you may not be surprised to learn, a route. I have lots of other routes and ideas and contacts, but for now the routes mentioned, plus one other that I am keeping up my sleeve, are enough.
So I had the products the experience and the contacts, but what I needed was the kickstart, and this came this year. Mike Hayes is a fellow adventure cyclist, a blogger, and a great photographer. Mike and I have known each other due to our mutual interests for several years now and have idly pondered the concept of sharing our passions with others for some time. Mike was looking to start a small business, I was looking for an outlet for my journeys.
By the middle of this year Mike had got on with the job and created a polished product around my collection of tours, my experience as a tour and expedition leader, and my network of contacts across Asia; he called it Painted Roads and said it was mine if I wanted it. I did, I needed it; it is the path I have sensed was laying ahead of me for some time now and I cannot thank Mike enough for all he has done.
Painted Roads is going to begin in a modest fashion and it begins today as I have just landed in Hanoi to prepare for my first tour. For next year I intend to have 5 tours, with a possible bonus tour that could well creep in. The tours on offer are all created by me and will all be led by me. They are tours that I know of because I have cycled the routes for my own pleasure and have now decided to share them with like minded people who wish to join me. Mike will remain an import part of Painted Roads. He has been working tirelessly on the whole project, in fact as mentioned earlier he created Painted Roads as a brand and an entity, and I very much hope he will continue to shape it, taking care of design and quite possibly joining me for upcoming exploration and perhaps from time to time on tours.
Painted Roads has a blog and for the time being at least I will be concentrating my blogging efforts there with stories and photographs of all topics relevant to Asian bicycle adventures; from tales of the countries I travel through and live in and the people of those lands and my experiences with them, to the creation and running of tours and many things in between. In short I will, as usual, be photographing and sharing the things that I find interesting in life, only on a different blog. The website is almost ready to go, I just have to have to tidy up some tour details and dates and then we will go live, for now though
dear reader, may I present, Painted Roads’ blog.
On the 23rd of September I will be taking a small group of friends on a bicycle adventure through one of the most stunning regions of South East Asia that I have ever visited. If you are a regular reader of this blog you will recognise the tour as an adventure Phong and I embarked on last summer. The group coming along have all bar one ridden with me before, that one is a close friend of a lovely lady with whom I have cycled many times through Asia. There are still a few places left on the tour and the purpose of this blog post is to allow easy access to the tour information for any readers interested in jointing us on our adventure. Should you be interested please contact me ASAP on firstname.lastname@example.org for further details. Even if you are not interested in coming along you may find the pics and details bellow of interest, this really is a stunning area to travel though.
During the summer of 2011 my Vietnamese friend and colleague Phong and I set out on a journey we had long talked about, an exploratory journey to survey the feasibility of a bicycle tour in Vietnam’s mountainous north east.
Little did I know as I flew into Hanoi that my passion for bicycle travel was about to receive a stimulation far beyond anything I had imagined. Each day on the road brought something new, vibrant and exciting to stimulate the senses. Even in the misty humid conditions of midsummer’s wet season my camera was never away from my side as I tried to capture the grandeur of the fairy tale like landscape we cycled through.
Each new day brought with it something not more beautiful, for it was all equal in beauty, but some new and unique beauty. Phong and I are now very happy to be able to share this tour with others who, like us, find great pleasure and excitement discovering new and remote areas and the people who shape them. Our cycling adventure through Vietnams’s north east begins on Sunday 23 September in Hanoi.
DAY 2: Hanoi
The Old Quarter of Hanoi is a vibrant and exciting stage where peoples’ lives are played out amidst a maze of streets that wind through the wonderful colours and textures of fading colonial architecture. Today you are free to wander, explore, and soak up the atmosphere of this most vibrant and exciting of cities.
For those with their own bicycles we can build them up today, and for those renting we must take a little time to try the hire bikes for size.
This evening we will transfer to Hanoi’s main train station to board a comfortable sleeper carriage for the overnight journey to Lao Cai, the starting point of our journey.
Day 3: Lao Cai to Bac Ha. 77KMS
A comfortable over night sleeper train along the Red River takes us to the far northern border town of Lao Cai. A few kilometres to the north is China, but our journey begins with crossing the Red River and heading east on a little used road that winds and undulates through plantations of banana, rubber, fig, tapioca, cinnamon and the obligatory rice, to name just some of the contributors to this verdant blanket. After lunch we will begin our first major climb of the journey, the 18KM ascent to our destination for the day, the market town of Bac Ha at an elevation of 900 metres.
Day 4: Bac Ha to Huang Su Phi. 75KMS.
An early start is needed as we set out on an adventurous ride through a wonderful remote region. Leaving Bac Hai we climb for 10 kilometres on a hard packed gravel road before turning off onto one of the most beautiful rides in SE Asia. The road is mainly hard packed and though in places rough much of it is smooth jeep tracks. The mountain scenery is stunning, the locals are friendly and curious. There are several short harsh climbs that may leave some pushing their machines, the reward being an unforgettable morning of adventure cycling*. Following lunch we join a small sealed road dropping down to the regional headquarter town of Xin Mien
Our afternoon’s ride is a great contrast to the morning as we follow a small sealed road that undulates along the valley of the Chay River before a final three kilometre climb and descent to our overnight stop, the small town of Hoang Su Phi.
Day 5: Huang Su Phi to Vinh Ngoc. 60KMS. BLD
We set out along the quiet rural road that rises and falls along the Chay Valley. After 16 kilometres we begin the steep climb to the first of three passes that take us through a series of fairytale like valleys. The dense green forestation of the valley walls is streaked with the silver flashes of waterfalls, whilst in the valley below the colouring varies with season – brown, green, or yellow according to the rice harvest. The textures of nature combined with the man made rice terraces are breathtaking.
The final pass is called Heaven Gate II, and from here we begin a seventeen kilometre descent into the small town of Vinh Ngoc and our hotel for the night.
Day 6: Vinh Ngoc to Tam Son. 46KMS
We begin today with a short transfer to the regional capital, Ha Giang. Here we must obtain permits for our journey into the restricted zone that tracks the Chinese border.
Riding north we follow the Lo River through a valley flanked by jungle covered karst hills. The river flows brown and the valley floor is given over to rice cultivation. Initially two lanes the road soon narrows to a quiet rural single lane that leads us to the first pass of the day. We follow the narrow road across the plateau until the final three kilometre climb, our second Heaven Gate pass in three days. The views from the pass are indeed heavenly as we descend to Tam Son, our resting place for the night.
Day 7: Rest Day. Tam Son. 0KMS
For a well needed rest day we take a break in the district centre town of Tam Son, a quiet and friendly little town set amidst stunning scenery. Although quiet, Tam Son has several small cafés where one can relax with a coffee or beer and a good book. For those still keen to explore, the beautiful countryside is easily accessible by bicycle or foot with several small traditional villages worthy of exploration.
Day 8: Tam Son to Yen Minh. 47KMS.
We begin our day with a ten kilometre descent into the Nho Que Valley where we cross a small suspension bridge that takes us through a remote Hmong village. From here we follow the brown waters of the Nho Que River. The road away from the Nho Que follows a clear mountain stream as it climbs to the pass above and onto a lovely ridge-ride dipping in and out of the shade of fragrant pine trees through which we get tantalising views of the rich textures and colours of rice terraces, corn fields, and woodland in the valleys either side. The day ends following the ridge as is descends for ten kilometres to where the two valleys become one, and the town of Yen Minh.
Day 9: Yen Minh to Meo Vac. 68KMS.
Leaving Yen Minh a wide fertile valley leads us to todays first climb, seventeen kilometres up and onto Caonguyenda, The Rocky Plateau. Punctuated with jagged limestone ‘rocks’ and waves of karst hills stretching off into the distance it is akin to riding into a mythical Chinese painting. Crossing the plateau is a series of small stiff climbs and wonderful downhills, the last of which is 13KM with a backdrop so fairytale like that you can well imagine mythical creatures wandering the plateau. Along the way we can visit the Vuong Humong King Palace where our guide will tell the fascinating history of a royal families’ successful relationships with both their colonial masters and the communist revolutionaries.
Day 10: Meo Vac to Bao Lac. 73KMS.
Leaving Meo Vac a short steep climb leads us away from the Rocky Plateau. After three kilometres we cross a pass and then undulate through the last of the dramatic grey limestone before beginning a magnificent seventeen kilometre descent during which we loose over a thousand metres of altitude. For the afternoon the road is rural with little traffic. The jungle covered valley walls drop to an often cultivated floor as the road undulates along the valley with no significant climbs or descents for the rest of the day.
Day 11: Bao Lac to Tinh Tuk. 77KMS.
Today is a day of following valleys and crossing the small passes between them as our altitude wanders from three hundred meters to over a thousand. The valleys are green and fertile, rice is the main crop here and the sides of the valleys are often dense with vegetation. During the latter part of the ride we may need to dodge butterflies as large as a man’s hand. Towards the end of the day we climb to over 1000 metres and are rewarded once again with stunning views before descending to our hotel six kilometres beyond the town of Tinh Tuc.
Day 12: Tinh Tuk to Hanoi. 36KMS.
A ten kilometre climb is the work, the reward being the longest descent of the journey. For twenty-six kilometres we freewheel gently down into the valley below barely turning the pedals. By the time we are required to put a little effort into our cycling we will have lost a thousand metres and be back in the tropical warmth. One final climb and a three kilometre descend leads us into a small town for our final lunch on the road. Whilst we dine our crew will load the bikes into our support vehicle ready for our afternoon transfer back to Hanoi where we can celebrate a truly memorable cycling adventure in one of the city’s fine restaurants.
Day 13: Finish. 0KMS
The tour officially ends this morning. For those heading home we will arrange your transfer to Hanoi airport. For those staying on we can arrange optional extra tours including a night aboard ship at the beautiful World Heritage site of Halong Bay.
DATES: 23/09/2012 – 05/10/2012
TOUR PRICE: £1000
Minimum 4. Maximum 14.
A total of Distances 558KMS ranging from 36KMS to 77KMS per day. The daily average distance is 62KMS spread out over 9 days of cycling. Although these daily distances are not huge there is a lot of climbing and descending with a maximum altitude gain in one day of 2000 metres. Participants need a reasonable level of cycling fitness finding cycling 100KMS in a day none to stressful.
Autumn is a great time for cycling. The end of the monsoon season, although there may be a few scattered showers the sky is generally blue and the air clear, lovely for photography in this beautiful region. We can expect temperatures of around 24 to 28 celsius with cooler nights in the mountains.
What is included?
Included in the price is:
13 nights accommodation
12x breakfast, 9x lunch, 8x dinner
Drinking water and snacks (fruit, biscuits, nuts, tea, coffee, juice etc) whilst cycling.
Support vehicle and driver (1 or 2 depending on group size)
kayak.co.uk is a good source of flights. At present they are showing various airlines including Thai and Cathay Pacific offering London Hanoi returns for under £700.
Hire Bikes: £130
Due to the hilly nature of this tour if you are in two minds as to whether to bring your own bicycle I would suggest you do so. Mountain-bike, tourer, hybrid or cyclocross bikes are all suitable.
Our hire bikes are Trek 3 series MTB or similar. If you do choose to use one of our hire bikes it is worth bringing a saddle you are used to and clip in peddles if you use them.
All accommodation is included in the tour price. Rooms are allocated on a twin share basis although single occupancy is generally available at an extra cost of £190. We will be travelling through a remote region of a developing country so whilst we do our best to provide comfortable accommodation it will not be luxurious. All hotels have en suite bathrooms and AC where necessary. Many hotels and guesthouses have WiFi.
Single Supplement: £190:
The tour price is on a twin room share basis. Single room occupancy is available for £190.
Food and Drink:
Most meals are provided except on the rest day and in Hanoi. Snacks and drinking water are provided whilst cycling but you may wish to brink more western style snacks such as chocolate or energy bars as these are not widely available in Vietnam. Meals generally use rice or noodles as the staple with stir-fried meat and vegetable, eggs and soup. Lunch will sometimes be picnic and sometimes hot food. Baguettes are often used for breakfast and picnic lunch.
We are in a hot tropical climate at the end of the rain season. Sun protection is essential. Cool clothes will be necessary most of the time but in the mountains temperatures may drop especially at night. A fleece or light down jacket may be useful as will light
It is an essential condition of booking that you have adequate travel insurance that covers bicycle touring.
Those arriving at Hanoi International airport on the first day of the tour will be met at the airport and transferred to our joining hotel. Those arriving early or by a means other than air will receive instructions and advice on where and when to meet.
Visa on arrival can be issued on presentation of a certificate of approval issued by the immigration department. The certificate is a simple formality and can be processed and issued with minimum fuss via email by our agent in Hanoi for a fee of US$20. Arrangements must be made at least two weeks in advance. The visa fee is payable on arrival in Vietnam and generally costs between US$30 and US$50 dependent on nationality. (This fee is subject to change). Alternatively a visa can be obtained in advance from a Vietnamese embassy.
A £200 deposit is appreciated to confirm your booking.
Optional Extra: Ha Long Bay.
Ha Long Bay is World Heritage site of outstanding natural beauty. It is a very popular trip for people to make at the beginning or end of this tour. There are many options for accommodation and duration of a visit. This can be from a rapid day trip from Hanoi (rather rushed), to several nights on a luxury cruise boat. Our agent in Hanoi offers help with this optional excursion ranging from simple free advice to booking an all inclusive package trip.
The costal town of Hoi An is little short of lovely. It is blessed with wonderful colonial architecture in pastel colours, buildings that have thankfully been preserved in a tasteful and fitting way; a way that has not meant refilling every crack in the plaster, rubbing down flaking paint and polishing any exposed unpolished extremities. The textures and character of fading colonial grander are there in all their visual splendour. I love this look. The streets in the central area are open only to pedestrians and cyclists, no internal combustion engines; any city that rids itself of that most obnoxious of modern blights the motorcar is always going to be a hit with me.
Phong and I rolled into town content with the memories of a most splendid adventure behind us and an ice cold celebratory drink at the river side just a few moments ahead of us. We parked the bicycles outside a riverside café and took a seat at a table cooled by a whirling ceiling fan. As we soothed our dusty and parched throats we watched white tourists amble past, cameras swinging from their necks joining in light banter with the local boat pilots, rickshaw drivers and fruit sellers all busy looking for a little business. It is little wonder that there are so many tourists, this town is well worth a few days ambling around, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the great cafés and restaurants, but to suddenly see so many European faces comes as something of a shock. Phong and I cast our minds back over the past couple of weeks, how many white people had we seen? Two there, 2 there, any more? Ah, yes, there were the three that passed us on motor scooters and soon after ran out of petrol, and there was the girl riding pillion on a motorbike with a Vietnamese guide who stayed in our hotel in A Luoi, and that was about it.
And so ensued the inevitable conversation regarding the merits of bicycle travel. These people passing here before us would visit Hanoi, Sapa, Hoi An, Saigon and maybe a beach or two, the standard tourist trail as laid out in The Lonely Planet guide book. And yet there is so much to see and experience in Vietnam, The beautiful cities such as Hoi An for are for sure worth not just visiting but lingering in, but it is the contrast between here and the dusty border towns we have overnighted in, the remote jungle roads where we didn’t see a car for 180KMS, the roadside restaurants serving just noodle soup, and the charming little treasures such as the wonderful restaurant we spent a lovely evening in that was run by a teacher and his wife where Phong whiled away a merry two hours discussing the medicinal qualities of wild mushrooms that brings Vietnam into a sharp focus of reality.
And our next topic of conversation, where will we visit on our bicycle next time Phong has a holiday.
Since the post Perfect Travel Camera I have had time to become more acquainted with the new Olympus OMD camera, both in the countryside and cities of Vietnam. I learned first that I am not one who can jump easily between cameras, it has taken me a while to become accustomed to a new camera and I do not in envisage changing cameras for a long time now for two good reasons. A: I realise now how familiar I was with the GF1’s handling and it has been a longer process than expected to feel the same way with the Olympus, and B: Now I am feeling more and more at home with the Olympus OMD I cannot imagine a better travel camera.
The little Oly is just great in every respect. The buttons and wheels are all fully programable meaning that I now have it set up just as I want. My right hand can control everything I need it to without moving the camera away from my eye; one wheel, thumb operated, takes care of aperture, another wheel that rotates around the shutter release button takes care of exposure compensation, move my shutter release finger a small distance and two more buttons take care of switching between auto and manual focus whilst the other allows me to quickly change the ISO. Another button a little lower locks the auto exposure and auto focus is locked as usual by half depression of the shutter release. So I really have full control over the camera right at my finger and thumb tips. I experimented for some time with just what set up suited me best and this at the time detracted from the job in hand, taking pictures on the streets of Hanoi. For more info and another idea of how to set up an OMD EM-5 Pekka Potka has an excellent article here.
I think I also detracted from the photography in hand by using a new lens, the Lumix/Leica 25mm f1.4. Although undoubtedly a fine lens I soon refitted my ever faithful and trusty Lumix 20mm f1.7 and instantly realised why this lens is the micro 4/3 classic. It is simply perfect for street photography and to my untrained eye and mind any advantage the 25mm has is too small to warrant its extra bulk, and as a result mine will soon be up for sale.
The Olympus camera has many nifty features, a swivel touch screen with one touch focus and shoot – meaning point the camera at you subject, touch the screen where you want to focus, and the oh so fast auto focus does its work, the shutter releases and you have your image shot perfectly from waist height. There are many great features such as this but perhaps the biggest jump forward for me is the built in digital viewfinder. After several years away from a DSLR I thought I was well trained in using the screen on the back of the camera to frame my shots, but now I have the built in viewfinder I find I use it 95% of the time or more, reverting to the screen only for those candid from the hip street shots. Compared to the optional extra viewfinder for the Lumix GF1 the image quality of the Olympus viewfinder is in another universe.
So far as lenses are concerned I have faffed a lot since April. I tried the Olympus 12mm, a lens which became an instant classic. It is a fine lens but my skill with a camera could not justify the cost and I returned it to Amazon. In its stead I bought a Lumix 14mm for £100. Wide angle is perhaps not my bag but weighing next to nothing and priced so low I thought it worth carrying for landscape shots. The Lumix/Leica 25mm f1.4 is a lovely lens. I was hoping for the beautiful bokeh (the out of focus part of a photograph) of the Oly 45mm f1.8 but that wonderful quality is, to my mind, just not there, and so I have reverted to the diminutive but wonderful 20mm f1.7 Lumix lens as the lens that lives on my camera. I know where I stand with this lens, quite literally. I know pretty much where to position myself for the shot I want even before I put the camera to my eye, and for fine adjustment I move back and forth. So for general use this is still my favourite lens, but for beautiful bokeh, colour, and a quality that I cannot quite put my finger on it seems to me that there is no getting close to the Olympus 45mm f1.8.
So there it is, my perfect travel set up; the Olympus OMD EM-5, a camera that I think I will be with for some years to come teamed with the Lumix’s 20mm and 14mm pancake lenses and the lovely Olympus 45mm f1.8. Add a neutral density filter and a polarising filter and you have a fantastic set up that all together comes in at pretty much the same weight and volume as a Canon 24-70mm L series lens. Oh, and there in is perhaps a final lens I need to try, the new Lumix 12/35 X lens, with a focal length equal to 24/70* in full frame standard and image quality reportedly equal to that L series Canon it could just be the perfect companion to a perfect travel camera. Time will tell.
*As the sensor in a micro4/3 system camera is half the size of a full frame 35mm SLR camera the focal length of the 4/3 lens is equal to a lens of twice the focal length on the SLR. EG, 12mm 4/3 = 24mm full frame SLR and 35mm = 70mm. Therefore the 3 lenses I carry, 14mm, 20mm, and 45mm equal 28, 40 and 90mm respectively.
Head bowed, sweat running down my arms and dripping onto my mirror I concentrate on the climb ahead; beep-beep-beep-beep…. ‘what in god’s name is the problem?’ The sound of a small motorcycle grows louder as it looms slowly up behind me, a short respite and then the horn begins again. This road is empty, it just can’t be possible that a small motorbike cannot pass a bicycle crawling uphill at walking pace without the need for so much noise and fuss. It pulls alongside and I choose my words with care, I want to make it clear, in an international recognisable sentence to the fool pulling along side me that I am displeased with this unnecessary attention. I turn and glare and what greats me? Phong’s huge foolish grind ‘come on you old friend of my grandfather, can you go no faster?’ Phong is at the helm of the machine, behind him sits a less than handsome fellow with teeth clearly borrowed from a giraffe that perfectly round off his Cheshire cat grin. Hung across his shoulders like a yolk is Phong’s bicycle, ‘ten kilometres to the pass’ shouts Phong, ‘I pay one dollar per kilometres, I will wait for you in the shade at the top’. And that was the last I saw of him for the next hour, although the Cheshire Cat grinned his way past me on his way back home.
The character of this journey has taken an unexpected twist. As Phong never tires of reminding me, this is why we call it “investigation”. He insists that he would much rather ride the whole way and that his utilisation of local transport on some climbs is an initiative simply and purely designed to help the local economy.
The initial days of this journey were in the main part along valleys, some wide with rice and corn fields, some narrow where bamboo is grown and fashioned into chopsticks. There were climbs and descents as we crossed valleys, but always these were gentle and not overly taxing. We were, we felt sure after the first few days, looking at a physically lighter alternative to the NE Tour offered by Painted Roads and a tour lighter on traffic than the already fairy quiet NW Tour we have worked on together in the past. Then we began the climb into the Trung Son Mountains and all changed. The traffic grew even lighter and the climbs became more challenging. Thick jungle hangs to the valley walls and it is easy to see how the Communist Army could keep a low profile as the worked their way south carrying outrageously heavy packs. Phong has a relative who walked and fought on the route, I have met him and he is a kindly gent, one would never believe from his gentle demeanour that he had faced all to horrors of jungle warfare. He has told Phong of battles with many lives lost on both sides, of disease spreading through his comrades with little in the way of medication to treat them, and as one man fell another would have to shoulder his load. The climbs even now are steep and in this glaring mid-summer sun they are tough. Back then the roads were dirt tracks, steeper, rougher, wetter, with the constant fear of ambush and bombing. I think about all of this as I climb the pass, I think how easy this all is compared to what so many have been through as they passed this way. And as I think I finish the climb, and there he sits, shading from the sun beneath a wide tree, ;where have you been you frail old man’ he shouts as I hove into view.
The downhill that follows is quite fantastic, a perfect gradient, great road surface, no other traffic save for one small motorcycle coming the other way. We swoop down into the valley and make our way into Khe Sanh town where a little treat awaits. Unlike the last border town we stayed at, a dusty town with the feel one expects of a border town there is a feeling of prosperity here as we ride through the suburbs. Not quite Surrey, but there is affluence, cross border, uhm, “trade” being responsible one imagines. We pass a large truck discouraging large quantities of foreign beer into a dim warehouse as we make our way to tonights dwelling place, a rather luxurious hotel with a quite splendid little café where several beautiful young ladies attend to our parched throats with lashings of ice cold Heineken.
There were four others, all Vietnamese, siting cross legged on the floor around me. Our small glasses were kept well topped up with home made rice liquor by the youngest of the men, a builder in his mid twenties wearing thick blue overalls. The rice wine, as the spirit is referred to locally, was very good, which was fortunate as it flowed thick and quick. As a snack to accompany the wine we had eggs, with a difference. The egg’s content was rather more formed that is considered the norm in Western cuisine, giving the eating experience all the added benefits of a school biology lesson. The yolk’s wings were partly formed, as was its head; I didn’t find much in the way of legs, but the light was somewhat dim. The other three men were all enjoying their eggs, they were; the head builder, dressed in heavy brown two pice overalls, the local head of police, dressed in civvies, and of course Phong, dressed like Bradley Wiggins.
The events that brought us to be sitting in a half built house drinking strong grog with a pair of builders and an off duty police chief were, to my mind, rather curious. The 250KMS section of the ride we were now on was always going to be the most mysterious, this is where the Ho Chi Minh Trail splits into two very distinct routes, The more popular are generally used eastern route, and this, the quieter and more remote western route. Phong has been adamant from the very beginning that we should investigate the seldom travelled option. We would need to stock up with plenty of food and water, take a mosquito net, and if necessary we would make a mattress from banana leaves, he told me with a twinkle of excitement, and more than a little mischievousness in his demeanour.
The ride was one of splendid and almost perfect isolation, with nary a motor vehicle seen all day we crossed a series of passes through high virgin jungle before descending to a lovely valley ride where the air was filled with the scent of primeval forest and the hoot of gibbons and bird song.
The small town of Truong Son could not have been better placed, at 100KMS it looked for all the world like the perfect tranquil community set in the soft glow of evening light in a curve in the valley floor. A brief interview of a pair of locals toiling in the rice fields beneath a blue sky dotted with tufts of cotton-wool clouds revealed our suspicions to be correct, the town has no inn. ‘Fear not’ cried Phong with confidence, ‘we will have a room within the hour’.
Our first port of call was the local community office. It was a large L shaped building set around a courtyard opposite the community playing field. To my eye the building had a decidedly desolate air to it, but Phong rode in and so I followed. A brief scan around the premises and a word with the local lads there playing football confirmed my suspicion, not a soul here as it is, apparently, Sunday, and so the government officials have a day off; off course. ‘Not to worry’ said Phong, ‘in a small place like this it is always best to spend the night with the army’; quite, how silly of me not to realise. And so we set of to the army barracks.
The small army HQ was in all respects quite splendid. Terraced on a small hill it boasted fine views across the valley and would, I thought, make a fine guesthouse. The officer in charge of operations was a convivial fellow and within a very short time Phong told me they were sorting a room out for us. I thought this all very efficient and civilised but as we sat shading beneath a tree on the edge of the parade ground the officer returned wearing a serious face. Apparently as we were only ten kilometres from the Lao border and I am British we are a security threat and therefore we become a police issue. Hum!
The army shook us by the hand and sent us on our way to the chief of police. When we arrived at a house under construction I said to Phong, ‘this is a house under construction Phong, not a police station’. ‘Oh yes’ said Phong, ‘it is, apparently, Sunday, a holiday for the police’. And so I made a note that should I ever be in need of conducting any unscrupulous business in Vietnam Sunday would be the best day for it.
The chief of police wore a resigned sort of an expression that suggested he would rather be doing other things on a Sunday, but duty is duty and he began making phone calls. I asked what the phone calls were about and it turned out that he was trying to find a local family willing to put us up for the night. Now, I could have understood the whole situation slightly more had I been a battalion of Laotian tanks rumbling over the hills and along the valley, but the connection between a British cyclist, the Lao border and national security I couldn’t quite grasp, and the solution to it all being than rather than keep us in the army camp full of armed soldiers for the night we were to be billeted with a small village family only added to my wonderment. Vietnam has been ruled over by outside forces many times in its long history, I was beginning to understand why.
With each phone call the police chief made his face took on an ever so slightly more forlorn look, eventually he looked up from his Nokia and spoke, Phong turned to me with a grin, ‘tonight we sleep here’ he told me with a grin as the stoical police chief called the builders and open a large jar of rice wine.
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