It has been an interesting ride, as in "may you live in interesting times". Or to put it nicely, I've been too busy living to have the time to write about it. On the other hand, I expect to make Hanoi, or somewhere not far off sometime tomorrow afternoon. The distance is not too far if the road and weather conditions cooperate. There are no guarantees on the road. . .that's been a huge variable lately, with a lot of distance made good easily and fast. . .and other mileage earned by serious effort (accompanied by occasional terror). The weather will be cold rain and we're marginally prepared to deal with that. Today I wore everything I own except a spare pair of jeans and my last clean shirt. . .tomorrow we put the clean shirt on under the other two, it was pretty chilly today and forecast to be a whole two degrees warmer tomorrow. Mind you, we'll take the two degrees, but twenty would be more like it.
So how to deal with the fact that I've ridden well over a thousand km since I've really written to you? I'll give you a list of dates and locations and you'll see we've been busy:
January 5th--Pak Kading to Vang Vieng, Now that was an interesting day. Nice weather, warm and dry, and good roads most of the day. I intended to bypass Vientiane and did, just not quite the way I planned to! It's a nice place as capital cities go, but it's still a city with a big tourist operation and way too many one-way streets, some of which run into each other head on. In any event, when I came to a Tee into a prominent thoroughfare with an arrow one way pointing to Vientiane and the other way out of town, I took a moment to consult with my cell phone (I will learn, eventually, I think) who confirmed my choice, so we turned away from the city thinking it must be the mouth of Hwy 10 to cut off the city and take us to Hwy 13N. I'd expected Hwy 10 to be better signposted, but it wasn't. It wasn't Hwy 10 that is, and therefore not signposted. For a bit that northbound road whatever it was, was an under-construction 4-lane to somewhere, but after a 10 km mud and pothole extravaganza it morphed into a pleasant country road and then abruptly into a really small purely dirt road that was an amazing amount of work to ride. . .there were whee bumps and huge holes everywhere ("whee bump" any bump that makes your kids say "WHEEEE!" preferably without chipping your teeth), The cell phone insisted it was right and we'd find Hwy 13N just ahead. . .in a ways. And we did, but it was a lot of work. No matter, once we rejoined 13N, Vang Vieng was in easy reach for the afternoon and Luang Prabang was way out of reach and there weren't any other real choices. . .except for the lake town. The lake town is sort of a one of a kind string bean along the northern edge of a large reservoir, a long line of dried fish shops and snack shops (I suppose I'm repeating myself) and small restaurants. . .and a hotel. I've stayed there once before. . .it's a pretty basic hotel overlooking the lake, and thereby missed a chance to stay at a really gorgeous old hotel just beyond the lake. I did stop there this trip to see, but though the room was delightful, it was up a very long and steep set of stairs and didn't have wifi, which I really wanted (ed note: he is really getting spoiled, used to be delighted with an internet shop full of school kids). So we rode on. We rode into Vang Vieng in time to see THREE, not one but THREE hot air balloons making their final approach for the evening. Heck, most resort towns feel like they've made it if they have ONE hot air balloon overhead. Three. . .and it's not even the high season. More about that later. . .
|Early morning in Pak Kading, I'm looking for breakfast and people are still sweeping up the overnight bus mess and getting fires going to cook on. No coffee yet!|
|How the other half travels. ..a luxury cruise ship on the Mekong. Not something I'd want to take to sea though.|
|Check last year's blog. This large Buddha is making excellent progress, nearly finished now. I did not ride up the mountain to see what's inside. Perhaps next trip. . .(I think that's a man-sized door by his navel)|
|An excellent lunch stop en route on hwy 13N. . .the gentleman was very careful to make sure I got everything I wanted in my bowl of noodles. . .and nothing I didn't. (four kinds of meat, tomatoes, herbs, lettuce. . .and more) Very nice people.|
|Young man and canoe at the lake town. To be clear, the motor has been left ashore and he's paddling stern first, with the transom out of the water. . .not a bad solution really.|
|What I would call reef-net rafts. . .or maybe dip nets or. . .h'mm. On the lake.|
|Lovely old hotel just north of the Lake Town on Hwy 13N. A LONG flight of steep stairs to what would have been my room, a really lovely, gracious old place, but. . .no view of the lake, no wifi, and those stairs. We rode on. For shame.|
|I guess I photograph this home every time I pass by on the bridge. Just lovely, and maybe someday I'll get just the right light. Actually, this is pretty good late afternoon light. . .about 20 km from Vang Vieng, Laos on 13N|
|Late and early. . .take your photos then, wherever you are!|
|I just barely made it to a viewpoint to catch sunset in Vang Vieng this year. . .no second chance, I was gone down the road before it got up again.|
January 6--Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang. This is where northern Laos begins. In fact, it's one of the premier rides in the country when the road is passable. Leaving Vang Vieng you ride for a ways in the Song River valley, flat floored but walled with limestone monoliths on either side. . .stupendous scenery and easy riding. Soon though you climb out of that and into the mountains themselves, higher and higher. It's nothing but curves and switchbacks, daunting climbs and descents that can be too fast. Fabulous fun when the road is in any sort of shape. Not this year, the road is in the worst shape I've seen it in. Passable, yes, but rough and broken. The land is so steep that the houses perch right on the side of the road with their front feet dug in to hold on tight and their hind legs way down the hillside behind. . .and I'm not exaggerating a bit. Heck, most of them have their front door opening inward just to avoid having it ripped off by a passing truck. Kids look both ways before they step outside. Well, actually they often don't, so you really have to be on the alert. In the past many of the homes seemed pretty minimal and poverty stricken. This year, though there are still a lot of small bamboo homes, there are many more with a prosperous look about them. I truly love this ride and enjoyed every moment that I wasn't dodging a bomb crater in the road. To give you a sense of the place, it's a major improvement for a neighborhood when they finally manage a public spigot from a cistern that catches water from a spring or stream somewhere further up the mountain. There are many more such local water supplies now, so people carry water only a short distance by and large, and the water points make popular social spots where people visit while they bathe. Beautiful people I would note, light brown skin, shiny black hair, the men magnificent, muscular and shining with water drops. . .the ladies very discretely bathing with their long wrap around skirts tucked up over their bosoms. . .long wet hair and smiles and laughter. They can change clothes with complete modesty with those skirts. . .get the new one on underneath and a blouse on over the top and then slip the wet one off and away. Voila! The first time I came to Luang Prabang I'd been traveling every day solidly for 30 days. I stayed for five days and it wasn't enough. I've been back since and still love the place, but this trip was crazy. I'd decided I had to make up some of the distance to Hanoi or risk missing my flight. . .so we arrived at 3:00. I took my old hotel room again, took the bike for an oil change and checkup (tighten and lube the chain, replace the tail light bulb etc) then went out on foot in a rush to see my favorite spots quickly. . .very quickly. I made it to the top of mount Fu Si (138 stair steps in a single flight, then 190 more spread out over the face of the hill. . .) just in time for the obligatory "sunset over the Mekong" photos and a moment of peace and quiet in the oddly deserted little shrine at the summit. . .then (after the rubbery-legged descent) a walk through the night market, an avocado and chicken (??) baguette, a quick note home and. . .ready to leave in the morning. That's fast.
|And I guess I photograph this house and the river every time I see it too. Looking for perfect light.|
|Northern Lao Beautiful, out of Vang Vieng an hour or so northbound|
|Early morning side-lighting the limestone cliffs. North of Vang Vieng|
|Big brothers are so cool. . .the kids at my lunch stop between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang|
|And this is the whole audience. I'm very funny, or interesting at least, when I eat.|
|By golly, a new subspecies of Lao canoe. . .oh, wait a minute, I'm not doing that am I?? I guess I am. H'mm. And I have gps coordinates for it too.|
|That's the context. The Lao mountain people can navigate anything that's wet.|
|A nice little sundries shop and some nicer homes. The high country just isn't as wealthy as the lowlands are, but they're looking more prosperous in general this year.|
|Just another Lao mountain, between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang|
|These are really very nice little homes, and a good bit of rice drying by the roadside.|
|Coming into Luang Prabang, an elephant and an excavator sharing a construction company compound.|
|My Luang Prabang mechanic's wife and daughter.|
|A little help is a good thing when you're strapping on the kid (setup time for the night market in Luang Prabang)|
|That will do it. . .you're on board!|
|Luang Prabang pagoda, over the top of the night market pavillions. . .not night yet, so there's no crowd and nothing for sale yet. Come back in an hour though. . .|
|Looking the other way, old French buildings, Luang Prabang|
|Cute kids. . .all over the world, I know. . .these are in Luang Prabang, on my way up the stairwell to Mount Fu Si|
|My obligatory sunset over the Mekong from the top of Mount Fu Si. . .328 stair steps to the top, and the same back down again. Dear me.|
|The strangely lonely shrine at the summit. Hundreds of photographers for the sunset, but no one to contemplate the Buddha.|
January 7th--Luang Prabang to Oudomxay (all these names have various transliterations, you can't claim a spelling error!) After yesterday's awful road conditions I was ready for more of he same but the first half of the day was simply a piece of cake, sweet smooth roadway through lovely lowland scenery, the run was all in the Mekong and Ou River bottom lands or nearby foothills. . .lovely to look at (though not the drama of the mountains yesterday). Then at Pakmong a familiar sequence repeated yet again. Pakmong is an intersection town, where we could go directly east to the Xamneua and the Vietnamese border as we did last year, or continue north and west to Oudomxay en route to a border crossing near Dien Bien Phu in the far northwest of Viet Nam, my plan for this year. As we left town we were riding on perfect brand new, not even paint striped road with fancy new drain ditches at each shoulder, all faced with hand laid rockwork. That's always scary, not the rockwork, though it makes a fearsome bear trap where there ought to be a road shoulder, but the newly completed road work. Sure enough, it only ran a couple of km out of town and broke down into a massive construction project spanning the entire distance (over 80 km) to Oudomxay. Oh my gosh. It was horrendous. The dust level was beyond anything I've ever seen for that distance, The earth was particularly dry, not a drop of rain in a while (it's the dry season in Laos) and the soil turned into a powder the lifted in huge billows even from the passing of a motorbike. A truck or bus or SUV raised veritable thunderheads of white dust and there was no wind to blow it away. The hundreds of men laying stone work and mixing concrete were living in that dust all day and eating it and sleeping it all the time. It boggles the mind. Yet if they'd have applied enough water to lay the dust it would have made a skating rink of greasy mud out of 80 km of road. It was slow and truly dangerous at times. With no wind to clear the air and a steady passage of vehicles of all sorts, visibility often dropped to a matter of just a few feet. You could not see where you were going, or what was coming at you. When it got that bad I just steered toward where I thought the edge of the road might be and hoped nobody would find me. At one point there was a fresh landslide that carried a tree down across the road. When I got there there were 30 or more vehicles (no other motorbikes) all stalled on each side of the slide. There was, however, room for a motorbike to scootch under the tree and along the toe of the slide and on down the road. For a while I had no company at all!! At the end, we all had to line up and wait again while the road crew up ahead spread out and roughly placed a half mile of new base rock. We waited an hour or a little more and they finally let us loose. Et voila, we were in Oudomxay in ten more minutes. I needed food, fuel and a bed for the night. The food was haphazard but fine, the fuel was easy and the bed turned out to be in a really nice, classic old guest house, with some of the most beautiful wooden furniture (a whole wall of cabinets, TV nook, hanging locker. . .wonderfully carved and finished, and a real desk with a chair of all things). . .all for the same $10 I've often paid for a dump. Goodness, you have to like Oudomxay.
|Mom, you're pulling too hard! Getting the grand daughter of the house off to school. I stayed here (and took her portrait) when she was a small baby, Big kid now.|
|Ou River in a quiet mood, just above it's entry into the Mekong|
|Ou River, feeling a bit livelier, a few km upstream from the mouth.|
|Ou River, bamboos, fog. . .h'mm.|
|Veggies under plastic, new rice starting beyond. Ou river valley|
|Seed beds of green velvet rice. . .and newly transplanted paddy in the background. Ou River valley, upstream from Luang Prabang,|
|Breakfast stop in Oudomxay, after the horrendous ride the night before.|
|Breakfast stop from the opposite vantage point. Wide rice noodles, chicken and lots of veggies. Lovely start to any day.|
January 8th--Oudomxay to and through the border to Dien Bien Phu, still in fine weather. From Oudomxay to Muang Khua has been more or less easy for several years, but from Muang Khua onward it was different, a hellish ride the only other time I made it. Back then it started with three people picking up the bike and setting her in a canoe for a ride across the Ou river, Then there was deep dust (filled my shoes) and rough rocks for 60 km of mountain road, interspersed with various water crossings. . .a ford that stalled the motor, a muddy ford that was slippery as all get out, a bamboo bridge less than a meter wide, so forth and so on. At the time it was the worst days ride I'd ever done. Now there's a wide concrete bridge over the river and all the smaller streams, the road is newly paved and you can really enjoy the spectacular mountain scenery all around. What a change! The border formalities were purely pleasant (I'd have cheerfully started a shooting war that first trip, the Lao border officer was a bare faced highway robber, so I'd been primed for the worst.) Not only were there no extra charges, there were no fees at all even though there was a fee schedule posted in the window at the Lao office. All I got this year was a smile and an invitation to come back! Once the Vietnamese officer saw I had a proper document for the motorbike, he was all smiles and help too. Wow. The ride down the mountain into Dien Bien Phu is interesting, narrow and rough in places, but perfectly do-able. Dien Bien itself is a big town with all the services you'd need. I took a small room in a small guesthouse and found myself eating supper with four young men who were sharing a single room downstairs. They wouldn't let me pay a thing and it was not an inexpensive meal. Goodness.
|The road from Oudomxay to Muang Khua was paved in the past, but much battered by traffic and land slides. Now it's in lovely shape and you can enjoy the scenery at your leisure.|
|Sorry, can't pass them up. . .in a messy pond by a small farm house.|
|Old style, floating bridge over the Ou. Good enough for motorbikes, and no, I don't understand how it interacts with boat traffic. Not a drawbridge I think. Perhaps the fast boats jump it??|
|The old ferry crossing. Now it's in service as a landing for the tour boats running up and down stream. These are not "slow boats". If anything, you'd call them hot rods, megaphone exhaust and lots of horsepower, they scoot, even with a full load!|
|The sort of canoe we crossed the river in last time across. Never again I think!|
|Not the sort of canoe you'd like to paddle very far, but for drifting downstream into a mooring, not too bad. He ended up giving her a shot of power after all though, to nose her alongside.|
|That means "mechanic's shop". Er. . .well, something like that.|
|The last time I rode through here the road was a desperate struggle with dirt, mud, wild water crossings and rock. Now it's a really lovely new road, complete with bridges over every little creek, not a single ford. Look up and love the views!|
|A road, speed limits (18 mph in this case) and power lines. Oh my gosh!! The road to the Vietnamese border, 2015. You should have seen it in 2008.|
|How you deal with 2 way traffic on a one way bridge over the Ou. You scoot over and tuck in your rump. I wonder if I could ride across that or if I'd pass out from terror. H'mm. Maybe I'll never have to find out.|
|The road into Dien Bien Phu. . .through endless farm land.|
|Too cute to leave out. . .in Dien Bien.|
January 9th: Dien Bien to Lai Chau by a crazy way-north then south again route up Hwy 12 and down Hwy 4D. Heavy rain and wind all day. Yup, welcome home to Viet Nam. Darn. Hwy 12 was mostly fine, with just occasional bits of repair work or places where repair work was badly needed. at a town on the banks of a newly filled reservoir near the junction of 12 and 4D things went downhill fast. The actual road above the town was terrible and reached a decision point between a water crossing of undetermined depth and bottom for 100 meters, or the same distance through visible soft and rutted mud. I went for the soft mud and made it. I'll never know what was under the water, or how far down it was, but an SUV did splash through at the same time I was slipping and sliding in my mud. I gave him the right of way at the end, though he would have taken it anyway no doubt. Hwy 4D thereafter was incredibly difficult. I expanded my understanding of off road riding several different ways and kept the bike right way up and moving ahead. Wow. The climax of the day, though not the end of the terrible riding, came when a small group of 4-wheeled vehicles and four other motorbikes waited with me for more than an hour while a big bulldozer built a new road across a brand new rockfill between the mountainside above (where drilling, shooting and excavating were continuing) and a rushing torrent of swollen river 150 feet below. When he finally made it across the new "fill" and back bladed his way out of sight, the flagger held our tranche of 4-wheeled vehicles back to wait for the other end to send theirs through, but waved the motorbikes on through to ride counter flow through the oncoming trucks and SUV's. The "road" was only two cat tracks across rough rock. The rock from above continued to roll and slide down onto our new road, hard, fast, and all sizes. . .it was too much like a shooting gallery and we were the ducks. As far as I know though everybody from both sides made it across and onward. The trials continued, but nothing as hard as that. I rode as tail end Charley to the other four bikes the rest of the afternoon. . .there's some real advantage to that. I could see them speed up and know we were into a better stretch. . .then see them bounce and slow down and be forewarned. I could even get a good idea of where the best line through the mess ahead was by where they lead into the rough. They didn't always get it perfectly, but they were good. We rode fast through some very difficult ground and I learned a lot. We (just the horse and I) rode into Lai Chau a little late in the day, still light, but not very, cold and wet. I took the first hotel we came to, not the nicest facade, but it turned out to be one of the nicest on the trip. A lovely big room and again, a real writing desk. Usually (tonight for example) I perch on a chair and hunch over to reach down to a little end table to write. What a treat to sit at a proper desk, especially one with pretty wood and nice details. But there was scenery. Oh my goodness was it grand, mountains, cliffs, big rivers, huge new lake (mixed blessings at best, but interesting and really rather pretty in a big-lake sort of way), fascinating towns and villages widely scattered (very low population here, mostly wilderness and new hydroelectric projects). AND THERE ARE ALMOST NO PHOTOS. Between the downpour and the extremely hard riding I almost never unbuttoned a camera case. There's a potential up side to this though. . .I've pretty well determined to make a fair weather season to do nothing but explore this region in detail, from Dien Bien to Si Ma Cai. That will include a lot of mountains and small roads, and I'll have to miss springtime in Seattle. . .but you'll love the scenery.
|A major house raising party. . .Vietnamese mountain style, early in the day, not really frozen yet.|
Which brings us to today, January 10th, From Lai Chau via Hwy 4D and Hwy 32 to Nghia Lo. Rain and cold all day, with a battering headwind through two different mountain passes. There were long stretches of fog when we climbed over ranges of hills between river valleys. Though my route down Hwy 32 added 70 km to the distance to Hanoi, it kept us mainly in the lowlands and thus mostly out of the fog. The alternate, shorter route via Lao Cai and Hwy 70 would have had long stretches, up to 80 km at a time in the clouds, and Hwy 70 is a main arterial between Hanoi and Kumming China, horrendous traffic and often battered into disarray. It was an easy decision today with the cloud base so low. The route over the mountains would have been miserable at best and you couldn't have seen a bit of the scenery. Some day, perhaps very soon I will write an ode to Hwy 32. It is a wonderful route through absolutely stunning scenery. Though the road runs mainly through river valleys and often in bottom land, every curve (and there are hundreds) yields another wonderful view. It's a densely populated region, every inch of even remotely feasible ground is under cultivation, with terraced fields reaching way up the mountainsides, indeed, often blanketing the entire mountain! It's a looping wandering road, coming from nowhere in particular and eventually meandering into milder lands farther south. It serves no industry and has no cities along it, mostly only small towns and "townlets" as my Vietnamese road atlas calls them. . .little places full of Hmong and Thai and who knows what other ethnic people. I was thoroughly chilled by lunch time and stopped in one of those hamlets at a tiny place that had a sign out for Com, Pho and Cafe. . .rice, noodles. . .and blessed coffee. I went in and was shortly joined by the owner, a pretty young lady who quickly figured out she had a frozen old guy on her hands and proceeded to keep hot liquids coming to me as quickly as I could drink them. . .and warm my fingers around them and my nose over them. . .gosh I was cold. I hadn't been shivering on the bike, though I knew I was over cold and was working hard trying to keep circulation going in hands and feet. With hot tea in a big glass in my hands the shivering came on like the plague. I couldn't stop. When I set down the glass to pick up a coffee cup the table and dishes all rattled. I didn't spill much though, I wanted it too badly! She wasn't really set up for noodles or rice, but when I asked for noodles she got out her smart phone and called down the street and noodles arrived on a tray with garnishes a few minutes later. All of it, the tea and coffee and refills of hot water (you can do pretty well with a second pass through Vietnamese coffee grounds, and the tea can stand several wettings) and the special delivery big bowl of meaty noodles was only $3.00. I left feeling like a new man an hour later. Just as well I stopped. The road to then had been utterly lovely with hardly a break in the pavement. Just beyond town the river had taken a piece of road for a snack and the road crews were borrowing space from the mountainside for a repair. I thought I'd seen it all yesterday with the bulldozer and the falling rock. Today I met the bulldozer coming at me. I was in the muddy ruts and he was pushing rock to build a road base. I had to get out of the his way and that meant even deeper mud. . and when he was past I had to climb over the rock wrinkle he'd left. We did it. That little bike is hard to stop in low gear and I did not want to let her fall over in all that mess. But that was it, Thereafter the road was almost entirely good, only very occasional problems. There were, what, four maybe, places where the whole road had settled vertically three feet or more. . .perfectly good road where it had settled and at both ends the highway went on just fine. The 3' drop though was really startling. We took them on the diagonal, going down and coming back up and it worked, almost easy. But really startling!!
Anyway, there were almost no photos today in all that rain and wind and wonderful scenery. I'll go back next year in a better season. . .April 2016. . .gosh that's a long time to wait. The photos should be worth it though!
|What a way to start a day. . .driving rain and wind.|
|One of the nicest hotels of the trip. . .a nice working desk, and quite nice surroundings, just a lot of rain to enjoy. Lai Chau, Viet Nam|
|The view out the door of my late lunch stop, shivering hard enough to rattle cups on a table. . .and some of the worst riding of the trip just ahead, if I'd only known. Well, I guess I'd have gone ahead anyway, too far to go back!|
|The young lady who kept filling my glass and cup with more hot liquids. . .and got me a bowl of great noodles from somewhere down the street. The kids were an avid audience until m'lady got out the cards and distracted them. They played with drama!|
|Imagine it green in the Spring. I'll be back.|
|Rain, low cloud and fog. no end to it. . .sigh|