The road less travelled

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First published 17th December, 2009

While a cycling trip through much of four countries can certainly be described as epic, the hill-filled journey from Hanoi to Sam Neua, Laos was undoubtedly the most arduous part. While numerous cyclists follow the main highway from Vientiane to Luang Prabang and back, few choose to enter Laos through its north-eastern back-door. Endless uncompromising mountains stand between the plains around Vietnam's capitol and the small provincial city of Sam Neua, hidden high in the clouds. Covering just under 400km, of which 350km are mountainous, it is a solid six-day ride: four on the Vietnamese side, and the final two in the wilds of Laos.

Mountainous scenery

Day One: Hanoi to Hoa Binh (75km / 3hrs 47min*)
Departing Hanoi, around mid-day since that's how we roll, we cycled directly into a massive rain storm, a pounding final remnant of the monsoon season that's officially passed. Slightly soaked but primarily dry thanks to our DryDucks (permanently tucked into the top of our baggage after a few meteorological lessons at our expense) we continued through the slick streets. Not that the endless sprawl, squat storefronts on either side of the highway, busy with people and traffic, quite qualifies as suburban -- perhaps suburban. Trucks and buses kept us wary, and the lack of a shoulder for two-thirds of the day meant finding a pace proved difficult despite the flat road. The final 20km or so got slightly hilly, though the approach into town is flat. Hoa Binh is not the most remarkable town, but good food and lodging are both easily locatable.

Day Two: Hoa Binh to Mai Chau (65km / 4hrs 22min)
We got a very late start due to a severe chaffing emergency. Plus we thought the ride would be flat, but it was not. So we ended up getting plenty of exercise during a solid day of cycling. Less than 15km in, we had to climb a mountain, several kilometres straight up in the morning heat. Then the road was pretty hilly, up and down, until a monster hill, in the darkness, crushed our souls and legs.

We literally hung onto a truck to get up the top-part, before coming down the mountain in the pitch-black, lit only by our Petzl headlamps. The final downhill stretch would've been quite fun in the daylight, but turned a bit treacherous at night, an unfortunate and reoccurring theme of this journey. Mai Chau provides a variety of sleeping options, from hotels in town to home-stays in two outlying villages, and is the last town with accessible internet until Sam Neua.

Day Three: Mai Chau to Ba Thouc (63km / 5hrs 24min)
Despite being the same distance as the day before, the bamboo logging road we foolishly found ourselves on took an additional hour of tough terrain riding; true mountain biking for most of the day. The first 11km were reasonable, not too hilly and paved, but we made our mistake when we followed a Ba Thouc sign past a small cluster of wooden houses and onto a dirt road. We thought it just went through a village, and was a shortcut, but ended up being a definite wrong choice. We should have stayed heading south on Highway 15, but we assumed the sign and enthusiasm of the people meant it was the correct way to go.

Endlessly beautiful scenery and friendly locals didn't quite make up for the super slow pace, and the challenge the rutted and uneven road presented. There were plenty of cute animals, too, but we had to cross too many streams, two somewhat rivers, and even the long downhills were slow and deadly: I almost broke my rack in half from the endless bouncing on one of them, but fortunately a pair of zip-ties were able to make the necessary repair.

The last five kilometres or so were at least on a paved road, though in one place it was flooded past our knees, so it was dark again when we arrived, but at least we made it all in one piece. Food, beer, and kindly locals smoking tobacco-filled bongs are all found in the main intersection, but the hotels are scattered about further into the one-street town.

Working bamboo in the river

Day Four: Ba Thouc to Na Meo (102km / 7hrs 32min)
The obvious consensus from our group was that this was a hellaciously long day. Full of massive hills, the kilometres passed slowly but time did not. Cycling for over seven hours is grueling, and requires plenty of breaks for snacks (Larabars) and stops for extra water. We were on our bikes all day, sweating ourselves out of bathroom stops despite the cool weather.

The whole day was challenging, especially with a tired body from all the cycling beforehand, and a huge hill with about 15km left simply annihilated what little was left of our legs. Again our headlamps guided us down hills and through villages, and we arrived exhausted and hungry, but were still eager and excited to enter Laos the next morning.

Na Meo now has two hotels, but the cheaper option also has a generator and an English-speaking manager, so it's probably the wiser choice. You can change dollars and dong into kip at the hotel, the man is kind and honest, though the rate (7,500kip/dollar) is far from the best. You don't need much kip to last through to Sam Neua, where there are banks and better rates, but you definitely need at least some.

Day Five: Na Meo to Vieng Xai (59km / 4hrs 26min)
The first two hours of the day were spent with border formalities, with not much hassle on the Vietnamese side other than the required x-ray of all of our bags. The Vietnamese border guards also offered to exchange money for us at the same rate as our hotel. Entering Laos, at Nam Xoi, was also easy, though very time-consuming. Multiple forms with our basic information had to be filled out, an H1N1 temperature test was required, and after much more waiting we finally got to push -- not ride -- our bicycles across the border. There is visa-on-arrival, they charged us $40 for Americans and $42 for Canadians (plus 10,000kip extra twice; first for the H1N1 screening and again for an unknown visa fee) on November 2, 2009.

Piggies and hills

It was another tough day of riding, with possibly the steepest hill we've cycled yet beginning around 22km. Before that the terrain was surprisingly calm, but pedaling uphill for around an hour straight was physically and mentally draining. The 12% grade at times was the highest we've seen (signposted), so much so that our bicycles would start to lift up from the front as we frantically drove, in an S-pattern, up the mountain. The prerequisite ride down was spectacular, and from then on there weren't any more massive hills, but plenty of ups and downs through villagers harvesting rice and grain. We arrived in the autumn twilight, chilly and weary with very sore legs.

Lodging is minimal in Vieng Xai; there's a former government hotel by the lake, or a few other guesthouses near the Visitor Centre. Scenery aside, most tourists come to see the famous Pathet Laos caves. English tours are available at 9am and 1pm, so make sure there's enough time to sight-see and cycle.

Day Six: Vieng Xay to Sam Neua (30km / 2hrs 25min)
Compared to the monstrous two days before, this was a very relaxing day. Unfortunately there is a beast of a hill, about 3km in total, halfway into the day's journey. Before and afterward weren't so bad at all, surrounded by enjoyable scenery through some nice villages, and coming into Sam Neua itself there was a nice steady downhill marking the return to civilization. If internet and English menus imply civilisation, of course.

For some variety, while Deen's Indian restaurant may not have a sign it does serve delicious food. Located just to the left of the large war memorial in the main circle, it's a nice change of culinary pace after almost a week in the hills. There's plenty of lodging choices, too, most in the nearby vicinity of the market.

Scenery from Ba Thuoc

There's also a relaxing hot-spring 17km west of Sam Neua, buried deep in the rice paddy fields. Though possible to cycle to, you may want to hire transport in order to relax a bit (and not freeze on the return journey). We paid 175,000kip for the tuk-tuk round-trip, and the bathing fee was only 5,000kip. There's an algae and rock-filled outside tank that we sat in to be social, or several small bathhouses with proper bathtubs and well-filtered water for more private bathing. We used both, but most Lao people came just to take a private bath. Just remember to dress conservatively, this is the local hot springs, not a tourist destination.

Challenging terrain aside, this ride showcased some of the best scenery we've seen while cycling. The hills and valleys are endlessly entrancing, local life is enchantingly feudal, and the sunsets are fantastically epic. It's rare when such extreme physical effort is so instantly rewarded, and satisfaction outweighs exhaustion at the end of every long day. While not for the inexperienced traveller, this route is certainly manageable if you're properly prepared and willing to dedicate the necessary time and effort. Logically this ride can continue all the way to Luang Prabang or down to Vientiane. From Sam Neua you'd reach Highway 13 via Nam Noen, Muang Kham, Phonsavan, Muong Sui (aka Ban Nong Tang), and then Phu Khun. From there Luang Prabang is a hard two-day ride north, or Vang Vieng is an easy two-day ride south.

Special thanks go to Simon Stewart for his wealth of information and assistance regarding this route, he really removed a lot of worry from our lives.

*Cycling times are the time spent actually pedaling, so breaks to eat, drink, and rest are not included.

We'll be running a new entry from Anderson and the team every week for the duration of their trip across Asia. We hope you find it an interesting view into what another's journey through Asia can be like. There's a delay of a few weeks between where they are and the story appearing on Travelfish, so if you want to know where they are right now, be sure to check out their blog. Comments, as always, are welcome.

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