In what was to be the norm during my time in Vietnam, it was raining gently as I set off from the town of Tay Son. The temperature was just at the point where I didn’t need to put on my rain jacket, so it was quite pleasant to be riding in cooler conditions for a change.
The roads were quite busy to begin with. Compared with Laos and Thailand, drivers seemed less likely to follow any sort of rules, and more likely to use their horns. This was a bit annoying, but nothing compared to India. At any rate, the roads soon grew quieter.
The landscape was a lot greener here, and more varied. I passed lowlying rice farms before climbing up into low, forested hills. Rather than temples, churches were the most common religious building in the area.
One downside was the prevalence of litter. When entering a town, the roadside would often be covered in stinking piles of rubbish.
A few of the dogs tried to chase me, but thankfully I avoided getting bitten again. At one point, I saw a pair of dogs trying to fight a pair of cows. The cows were tied up and seemed more bemused than anything. Whenever the cows moved even slightly, the dogs would take fright and jump away.
Overall the riding here was surprisingly pleasant. The clouds kept the temperature comfortably low, and the scenery was pleasant with some small forestes hills.
On the second morning, I reached the town of Phong Nha and checked into a hostel. I spent that day resting but on the second day I went out to explore some caves. Phong Nha has a vast number of enormous caves, including the largest in the world. I wanted to to and see that, but on discovering the price tag ($3,000!) I decided to give it a miss. Instead I went to see Phong Nha cave, which is apparently the longest cave in the world.
From Phong Nha town, I (along with a group of mostly Vietnamese tourists) took a dragon boat along the river toward the cave. When we reached the cave entrance, the motor was turned off and our pilots (a man, woman and a young girl) used poles to drive us forward. A few hundred metres into the cave, we disembarked at a beach.
The scale of the cave was absolutely unlike anything I’ve seen before. I was really impressed, much more than I expected to be. It was (mostly) tastefully lit, with dim lights hidden behind rocks. Unfortunately many of the photos didn’t turn out too well due to the limited light, but it was a very worthwhile trip. Warning: photo dump ahead!
We walked back out of the cave, met up with the boat, and made our way back along the river to Phong Nha, and I returned to the hostel.
The next morning I set off cycling again, crossing to the other side of the river and riding along between the limestone cliffs.
Before long I reached another cave I wanted to see, Paradise cave. I paid for my ticket then climbed up a long staircase to the cave entrance. Inside the cave, tourists walk along a boardwalk, with many incredible rock formations to marvel at.
I returned to the bike and continued cycling, climbing up and over a mountain pass. The landscapes continued to be stunning; this section of Vietnam was proving to be surprisingly enjoyable.
After a night of camping down near the river, I continued through the mountains for another day. The roads here were quieter than any I’ve seen in some time. A few times I rode for an hour without seeing anyone.
The hills ended around the town of Lao Bao, which I reached just as it was getting dark. As I stopped to check my phone for hotels, a passing tourist stopped to chat. Harry, a young Australian backpacker, gave me directions to the hotel he was staying at. It was just 200,000 dong (£6) so I stayed there as well and we went out to get some dinner that evening – kebabs, then rice and some mystery meat.
The next day I reached the Lao border after an hour or so of cycling. The border crossing was pretty straightforward, with one noteworthy difference. The coronavirus outbreak was just beginning and I had to have my temperature checked. This was done with an electronic thermometer that was waved about 50cm from my face for about half a second, so I had some doubts about the reliability of its readings. Nonetheless, I was deemed healthy and allowed to ride back into Laos.
The weather conditions were quite different in Laos. Cool temperatures in Vietnam felt colder due to the frequent rain. the hot temperature in Laos feels hotter due to the humidity. I didn’t end up near a hotel that evening, so I had to camp. Thankfully there were no mosquitoes around so I didn’t need to set up the tent, which would have made for an uncomfortably hot and sweaty night.
The next morning, I rode along a rough road. To begin with it was reasonably smooth gravel but later on the conditions became more variable, with some deep sand and slick mud at different points.
I returned to the main road, feeling a bit unwell due to the sudden change back to hot weather. I was mostly ok so long as I kept moving, generating air movement to cool me down. As soon as I stopped I was completely soaked in sweat. When I stopped for longer, I had some really bad cramps. To top it off, my shorts and saddle were both wearing out. Combined with the fact I hadn’t washed them since camping last night, I was experiencing some bad chafing.
When I reached the city of Pakse after a couple of uncomfortable days of cycling, I decided to rest there for a day or two. It was nice to be back somewhere with decent supermarkets. Laos was once a French colony, and one result of this is that it is easy to buy baguettes! I bought some cheese at the supermarket, and some baguettes at the actual market. It’s been a long time since I had a baguette!
Jan 28: 129 km
Jan 29: 64 km
Jan 31: 103 km
Feb 1: 143 km
Feb 2: 149 km
Feb 3: 94 km
Feb 4: 129 km
Feb 5: 23 km