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RoughGuides #3:
Laos and Vietnam
26/7/99

A quarter of an hour across the Mekong river and the hustle and bustle of Thailand is left far behind. Our boat sits low in the water as we chug over to the other side, piled high with Laotians carrying an unusual mixture of fruit, umbrellas and electrical appliances. I'm joined by Trystan, a friend from London, for the third phase of a Sydney to London bike ride raising awareness and funds for Children With AIDS Charity.

Arriving in Laos is like taking a stride back into 20's colonial France. In the hot afternoon, the sky is a pure blue, the palm leaves glisten with recent rain and crumbling architecture fringes the red dirt tracks. Greeting us with the welcome 'Sabadi!' children reach out their hands; the western handshake sets off peels of laughter compared to the traditional bow. As the sun sets over the Mekong, we sample our first bowl of sticky rice, squeezed into tiny plastic chairs by the roadside. By night, regular power cuts throw everything into darkness and a few mopeds, dim headlamps reflecting in the misty rain, clatter along the part finished roads. Savannaket may be one of the country's main towns, but the atmosphere is definitely one of timeless peace and tranquility.

Our route across the country is a short but remote one - the 'main' road to Vietnam. Little more than a series of potholes, we share it with enormous water buffalos led by stooped old ladies and locals riding two to a bicycle. Villages we pass are clusters of wooden shacks on stilts and offer sticky rice, bananas and Coca Cola. The children bring them to life, peering out from beneath huts and dangling from trees, calling out to us all the time. Their friendliness is incredible, but after a few wearing hours on the road, guiltily we crave a little peace and quiet...The mayor of the province puts us up in his office, a remarkable man who speaks French and English, fought for both sides in the civil war but is proudest of his discovery of a set of dinosaur prints. He has a French goverment certificate to prove it! He whiles away the night storytelling as we sip on jet-black coffee sweetened with condensed milk.

On the edge of the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail, a Franco-Belgium bomb diffusing team have set up base. Watching foreigners with a mixture of reserved curiosity and unabashed openness, it's hard to picture such a peaceful and rural people's darker past. During the Vietnam War, blanket bombing of the trail gave Laos the dubious distinction of being the most bombed country per capita in history. Today's only visible clues are leftover craters, and old artillery shells used to prop up houses. It's the hidden remnants which still plague the country. In the area we cycled through, farmers die every month from unexploded ordnance from a war fought in another country over twenty years ago.

Out on the dusty road, kids are playing the extraordinary game of 'flip flop boule,' adapted from the version played in the villages of France. Flip flops are skilfully slung, lobbed and slid as close as possible to a small rock... In the local restaurant, a brand new Sony Trinitrion TV stands pride of place, crammed with families religiously catching the latest soaps from Thailand and Japan. Watching village life from our veranda in Sepone, listening to lilting Laotian music and the occasional daytime call of a rooster, I try and imagine how very different life used to be.

Emerging from the sanctuary of Laos into Vietnam, the pace of life jolts back into the fast lane. Russian made Minsk motorbikes burn past carrying squealing pigs and crates of restaurant-bound dogs. Ribbons of bicycles disappear into the distance, burdened with anything and everything - enormous sacks of rice, chickens dangling from handlebars, metal canoes, hardwood furniture, live animals, dead animals... Coffee and rice lie out to dry, produce is hoisted up onto the colourful roofs of buses and everyone looks up from their work to wave and smile - it's very 'Truman Showesque'.

Conical hats and American War style helmets deflect the oppressive daytime heat, while the women wear long white gloves and masks to protect their skin from the sun.

Transport up and down the country revolves around Highway 1, the Vietnamese equivalent to the autobahn, which crosses the symbolic Demilitarised Zone. In the Soviet-style towns, rebuilt after being levelled in the war, huge soulless concrete blocks testify to the rubles invested since the American War, as it's called here. Along with burnt out tanks and moonscape craters, the many injured veterans are another reminder of the long war which tore apart the land.

But it's the buses we fear most. Plying the Hanoi - Ho Chi Minh City route, they announce their presence with ear bleeding staccato blasts of their horns. Replacing the need to brake, old wood panelled Renaults,foot firmly to the floor, swerve around carts pulled by swaying water buffalo and bicycles slowed to a crawl under a pile of coconuts. All around the Vietnamese are working the land to a backdrop of blue sky and golden rice fields - a sight that encapsulates much of this country.

It's not until pushing on to the more mountainous northern provinces that a welcome coolness displaces the heat and humidity. Dramatic mountainscapes, colourful hilltribes and terraced rice fields covering every spare inch of land provide wonderful cycling territory, with a memorable 30km climb to the hill station of Sapa, set high amongst the clouds and mountain passes.

Vietnam can be a hard country to travel. Besides its bureaucracy, it's easy to get wound up by foreigner pricing, the constant hard sales tactics in the tourist areas and the lack of personal space - the curiosity can be intrusive at times. But below this veneer is a fascinating and fast changing country with a genuinely friendly and forgiving people; cycling off the beaten track is the perfect way to find it.

I've now been on the road for over 8 months. With over 10,000kms down and a pannier full of maps, the Himalayas loom ever closer and challenging months lie ahead in China, Nepal and India.

As the pedals turn, the wheels spin round and the the adventure continues...



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