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May 14th: Lao Bao to Hue, First Impressions of Vietnam

Bleary eyed after a night of Laotian karaoke, we peeled ourselves out of the saggy four-poster beds, escaped the plywood partition rooms and rode down to the border crossing. Exchanging our leftover 'kip' for Vietnamese 'dong', we refreshed our stockpile of peanut brittle for the long day ahead.

Sailing through the Laotian formalities, the usual throng of locals surrounded the bikes, marvelling at the squeezy animal-shaped horns and generally studiously prodding the bikes. After a cursory inspection of our bikes on the Vietnamese side, and a little unnecessary hanging around - lest we forget who dealt the cards round here - we emerged in Vietnam as cloudy skies were breaking up to reveal a backdrop of aqua blue. Slapping on a layer of suncream to the bewilderment of those around us, peddles turned once more in this new and mysterious country. Assimilating all the sights and sounds, the first day always leaves strong impressions and a definite edge - a combination of excitement and fear at having to adapt yourself to a new land quickly and deal with a different language just when you're beginning to familiarise yourself with another.

After laid-back Laos, Vietnam jumped back into the fast lane. Ancient wood-panelled Renault buses hurtled around the bends issuing ear-piercing blasts of their horns. We overtook streams of cyclists carrying every conceivable object on their bikes - huge sacks of rice, bundles of coconuts, live animals, dead animals, TVs, even the strange sight of a passenger clinging on to another bicycle... Men cruised by on their Honda Dreams carrying the more awkward goods - a squealing pig, strapped to the passenger seat, or a crate of yapping dogs. Restaurant bound? Everyone shouted out 'Hello' - I felt fantastically popular, like I was cycling through a local village in which I'd lived all my life -it was distinctly 'Truman Showesque'!

The roadside was a hive of activity and life - half stripped mopeds surrounded by mechanics, coffee laid out to dry, produce hoisted up onto the colourful roofs of buses. Buildings were noticeably more solid than Laos - concrete blocks with real doors and windows, sometimes with bizarre church-like spires tacked on the top.

The road dipped and rose, a good deal hillier than the climb on the Laotian side, revealing beautiful vistas of banana tree plantations rolled out before like a carpet of lush green forest. Forewarned with tales of Vietnamese unfriendliness, we received nothing but smiles, waves, and greetings as people looked up from their work. Highway 9 continued to wind its way through spectacular scenery, crisscrossing a river that flowed down into the valley below. Disintegrating into nothing more than a gravelly track where it was being resurfaced, it loped its way eastwards. Roadside workers called out for cigarettes and when I stopped to capture the view, a group posed for a photo.

The sun beat down and by midday the sky was bleached white with hazy clouds. In the corner of the horizon a storm seemed to be brewing and clouds were darkening with rain. We craved a refreshing downpour. Stopping to rest under the shade of a tree, local kids sensed our arrival and appeared out of nowhere. Many were on old Chinese single speed bicycles, either so big they couldn't sit down while riding, but instead, floating forward over the top tube.

Or their bikes had only axles in place of pedals, which they pressed down with their thin flip-flops. Others were just totally lacking in the brake department. Yet these kids coped expertly with the dusty, hilly, and bumpy road and made the most of bicycles that westerners would have long since consigned to the back of the garage. They stared intently at our own steads, pointed to the different parts and made various comments to one another in Vietnamese.

As we descended further down into the valley approaching the coast, the road smoothed out easing the numbing in our hands - Trystan was particularly affected and had lost the feeling in two of his fingers. People popped up from everywhere, ribbons of bicycles disappeared into the distance, water buffalos ambled by - everywhere something was going on. The women who cycled wore long white gloves which reached past their elbows and either Vietnamese conical hats or 20s style bonnets complete with flowers. A mask across the face left little showing but the eyes giving a kind of 'Invisible Man' look. It seemed a fair skin is all the rage in Vietnam.

A young wide-eyed boy caught me about to overtake and peddled like fury in retaliation - we raced each other for a couple of hundred metres and then pulled over for a 'chat'. He was wearing an old Vietnam War hardhat (or the American War, as it ís referred to here). Gesturing me closer with little sweeps of his tiny hands, as if swearing me into some kind of conspiracy, he looked from side to side and whispered, '....dollar...' Just the one word, but a word which seems to encapsulate the modern Vietnam. It ís all about the dollar.

We passed through Dong Ha where a few old American tanks lay rotting by a mighty billboard picturing a united family, hospital, army, and a progressive and advancing Vietnam, 'Independence, Freedom, Happiness'. Pushing on we joined the main highway south. Buses plying the Hanoi/Saigon route hurtled by with ear-bleeding blasts of their horns - morse-code like, these staccato blasts would be issued upon not just catching sight of anything that was moving, but also anything that looked like it had the potential to move. The horn is a definite substitute for the brake and Vietnam-bound vehicles seem to be fitted with devices that would turn heads at a 'rave'. Their volume was phenomenal, shocking, offensive, even rude - but as these lumps of metal stopped for no one, it ís best to know where they are. Some Canadian cyclists I met resorted to ear plugs in an effort to filter the noise to non-danger levels.

Desperate for food, we stopped at a roadside stall and guzzled chicken soup for the final push to Hue. A burst tyre delayed us further. Ricefields on either side, we stopped beside piles of hay made from the tops of the harvest just as hundreds of white and blue clad students finished school for the day - yet more attention.

It wasn't until dark that we arrived in the walled citadel of Hue. Cycling on the highway at night with no lights is an experience I will try to avoid in future. Not that anyone else bothers with lights; it's the way that buses make up for this. Their halogen beams left me blinking like a blinded rabbit, swerving to dodge the two red spots branded into my vision.

But finally we were there, not a little exhausted, some 160kms showing on the clock. The first day in a new country is always a little stressful; finding your feet, discovering the do's and dont's and absorbing a new currency. Luckily, we met softly spoken Michael from Switzerland, working on a water project, who helped deflect the onslaught of cyclo drivers offering to find us a room. Wobbling over to a restaurant, we devoured plate upon plate of delicious Vietnamese cuisine and retired to our rather soul-less abode, after politely declining the propositions of two Vietnamese 'massage girls' in the room opposite. Day One in Vietnam, over and out...

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