Laos
13 February - 23 February 2007

As with all the others, the border crossing into Laos went smoothly, and it was then only a 20km jaunt into the capital, Vientiane. From the looks of it, it may be the world's smallest capital city. Nevertheless, it is absolutely crawling with tourists, and it is not quite clear why. There are things to keep one busy for a couple of days, but there isn't anything here you'd come out of your way to see. It's not a bad town though, mainly because of the food. We hung around a couple of days before we were convinced there wasn't really much to do. We became slightly anxious cycling out of the city seeing signs offering 'Foreigner Baguettes', especially after having seen 'Fried French' on the menu the night before, but we escaped without harm.

Our first stopover saw us in a small town (not that anywhere we went to was really big enough to warrant the title) which curiously had a good couple of guesthouses. Must be to cater for the cyclists, it's hard to imagine why on earth anyone would stop here otherwise. We had dinner in a restaurant that was incorporated into a local family's front room. Though a fervent meateater, Kat was very perturbed at the amount of hide in her beef soup, while Richard was very scared of what appeared to be a plate of caterpillar salad. Fortunately we had also ordered 'fried egg', which turned out to be an omelette. Our food woes continued in Laos the following day, when we found a restaurant offering the tantalising choice between weasel, porcupine or turtle, cooked in a variety of ways.

The days in Laos went incredibly slowly. The cycling was mind numbingly boring - the whole place is just barren, with nothing whatsoever to see. It was also sickeningly hot, with no shade anywhere. The people were a treat however, but even so we were looking forward to reaching Vietnam and having a change of scenery.

We also started an auction for a signed Reading FC Premiership shirt whilst in Laos.


Vietnam
24 February - 06 March 2007

The first day's cycling in Vietnam was the perfect antidote to Laos. After a long but gentle climb up to the town of Khe San, we descended for what must have been 10km through lush mountains, past rivers and rice fields. It was breathtaking, and easily one of the most beautiful days' cycling we've had. The reaction of the kids as we passed through the villages was amazing. They lined the roadsides shouting 'hello' and running out to try and touch our hands. On some slow stretch we had up to twenty or thirty kids running after us.

Fortunately the food in Vietnam was less strange too.

We had heard horror stories about the prevailing wind on the coast of Vietnam at this time of year, which blows from the northeast. Our planned route would have us riding straight into it, so we took perhaps the first intelligent decision of the trip. We would cycle in the opposite direction, do the equivalent kilometres heading south rather than north, then get the train to the planned Vietnam destination of Hanoi. We'd then be able to cycle north to China. Make sense? Good.

After the spectacular riding across the country, we were now on the dreaded Highway 1. It was not nearly as bad as we had been led to believe, but perhaps that's because we were not anywhere near Saigon. Not that it was particularly scenic, and the Vietnamese do drive like maniacs, but as usual in south east Asia, we had a wide shoulder to cycle on, so apart from the noise we weren't really bothered by any kamikaze buses.

We started a painfully long sleeper train journey north to Hanoi at the end of the cycling south. We will never complain about boring cycling or sore bums again - getting the train is so much more uncomfortable than travelling by bike. And you don't really get to see much.

We arrived in Hanoi in the wee hours, to find the hotel we had booked locked up for the night. After some hammering on the door and persuasion, we at least got let into the building, if not the room - that didn't happen till about midday. We then had to collect our bikes from the station, which had been closed at 4am when we had arrived.

Kat took an instant liking to Hanoi, though that was probably due to the fact that she could buy Chinese steamed buns on the street. It was a very expensive place to stay and eat, but we were forced to sit tight and wait for our Chinese visas to be issued. Cycling round Hanoi is quite exhilarating - there is so much motorbike traffic, and none of it obeys any traffic rules. But we knew that we would never be able to find our way out of the city and on our way north, so we hopped on another train to clear the mayhem before setting off on the bikes again.

The weather in Hanoi had been a bit dull while we had been there, but nevertheless still very humid. On the day we left, the temperature plummeted by nearly 15 degrees, so we got on the train early in the morning freezing in our shorts and t-shirts and feeling like a couple of prats. Everyone else was wrapped up in their winter coats and gloves. Some local women sitting on the train kept clucking away at Kat in here shorts and sandals and being continually amazed at how stupid we were. Richard pretended to be asleep.

The following day the temperature was still freezing and it had started to rain, so we hastily went out and bought a jumper and a pair of trousers each to cycle in. It was the same for the rest of our time in Vietnam. Cycling towards the border the scenery was once again stunning, albeit shrouded in heavy mist and obscured by the rain. It didn't matter at all though; we couldn't have been more excited at the thought of crossing into China after 9 long months...