To the end of the world

If you like quiet unspoilt beaches, seafood dinners straight from the sea and watching life roll by at a gentle pace … then the Alentejo is a perfect holiday spot you.

It will transport you back to a simpler, more innocent age where you can sit under a cork tree and gaze out at a beautiful rural landscape that seems unchanged for centuries.

But … perhaps it’s not the best part of the world for independent bicycle touring.

Situated south of Lisbon, the Alentejo is the poorest and least populated part of Portugal. That probably explains why most of the small country roads that criss-cross the cork forests and dusty fields are still made of gravel or sand.

Further north these ripio tracks are an occasional hazard. In the Alentejo, they’re lurking around every corner … rutted, very bumpy and often covered in heavy drifts of sand.

On a mountain bike it would probably be a lot of fun. But our touring bikes just slither from side to side … or grind to a halt.

A bit sandy?
Some new tarmac roads …
But not all!

So we stuck to riding on larger roads instead. Not the big main roads but the secondary roads that connect one idyllic white-washed village to the next. These proved to be very straight, very flat and very narrow … therefore invitingly fast for cars and trucks.

They also contained an alarming number of obstacles at the edge of the road … large potholes, deep cracks, tree roots, drains, manhole covers. For the humble cyclist, riding along them can become a game of chicken. Smash into the tree root that’s looming up ahead? Or avoid it and swerve into the path of the car that’s zooming up behind?

Not a combination that adds up to a pleasant and peaceful bike ride.

Vila Nova de Milfontes

Whilst it may not be ideal for a bicycle tour, the Alentejo is a paradise for long distance walkers. The Rota Vincentina offers a network of over 750km of caminos to choose from, including the Fisherman’s Trail down the coast, the Historic Way inland and lots of shorter circular walks.

Relaxing at Zambujeira do Mar

But cycling wasn’t all bad! Apart from the delightful coastal views and the idyllic seaside villages, one of the best things about riding through the Alentejo was that we enjoyed a tailwind every single day!

Before we knew it, we had been blown to the ‘end of the world’, the name still given to Cabo de São Vicente (Cape of St Vincent), the most south-westerly point of Europe.

With only the brooding Atlantic Ocean beyond, people did indeed think it marked the end of the world, right up until the 14th century. We could kind of see why … it all felt a little unworldly as we cycled out to the cape early one morning before breakfast.

To the ‘end of the world’

As we reached the lighthouse our odometer passed 1000km cycled in Portugal. This also meant we have now pedalled for more than 10,000km since we embarked on our first bicycle tour from Bath to Barcelona, back in 2016.

On the way to the ‘end of the world’ we had a curious incident. A lady in her car flagged us down, rather flustered and urged us to be careful as there was a loose pack of dogs prowling around ahead. She was right … a dozen forbidding shapes were visible on top of the next ridge.

In rural Portugal every household has a dog. As we cycled past, each one of those dog’s barked as loudly as it could and flung itself violently at the fencing around its home. Perhaps to come and say hi? Perhaps to tear us limb from limb?

Either way … we’re a bit nervous of dogs!

As we reluctantly decided to turn back and go the long way around, a farmer rolled up in his wagon. He stopped, laughed and reversed back up to the dogs, urging us to follow him … which we did with some trepidation. As we reached them, he nuzzled a couple of the pack leaders and the rest immediately became as docile as could be.

We passed by without the slightest bark, not even a growl … in fact not even a flicker of interest!

Typical Alentejo houses

In the Alentejo we have stayed in lots of AL’s (Alojamento Local or self-catering apartments) often only booking one that comes with the gold-standard-ultimate-travellers-luxury … a washing machine!

But the main pleasure of an AL is that we can cook for ourselves.

Which creates a bit of a challenge as we can hardly carry a larder of groceries around with us in our panniers!

How do we get together a kit of ‘basics’ without repeatedly buying huge quantities and then wasting most of it? Olive oil, for example, rarely comes in anything less than a one litre bottle.

Clare has had to become very creative at collecting bits and pieces whenever she gets the chance.

She washes out the miniature shampoo bottles provided by some hotels and fills them with the olive oil, salt, pepper and vinegar. We carry a few cloves of garlic, some Italian herbs, chilli flakes, cumin and a couple of stock cubes … and bingo, we’ve got everything we need to make a familiar meal.

Clare’s kit

Every café coffee comes with a sachet of sugar. Every Pastel de Nata (custard tart) comes with a little cinnamon. Together, these combine to create some delicious stewed fruit to spice up our muesli.

The one big grocery item we’ve always got in our panniers is a large onion! But this has nothing to do with cooking.

Clare has taken to rolling around on it as a substitute for a pilates ball … to relieve her aches and pains after a long day in the saddle.

After a few days we usually cook them up … they’re always nice and tender.

Carvoeiro

Turning east along the Algarve, we treated ourselves to some beach days in Lagos and Carvoeiro. Suddenly we’d arrived in the English Riviera. You could tell this not only from the distinct Yorkshire or Essex accents that floated up from the pavement cafés, but also from the number of Tandoori restaurants that were suddenly available.

Boat trip from Lagos

Deciding not to cycle through all the pristine golf courses that hug the coast, we headed for the hills instead, passing through the lovely villages of Silves and Alte and endless groves of pomegranates, oranges, lemons and olives.

It meant a lot of climbing … but that felt like a good alternative to headwind that was developing near the sea. After all, you can’t go down a headwind!

The Algarve is only 143km wide so before we knew it we had arrived in Tavira and our last night in Portugal. To celebrate we treated ourselves to a night in a Pousada, an old convent converted into a hotel. It was delightful … so delightful that we even forgot to take away the sachets of sugar!

Pousada Convento Tavira

Marking the border between Portugal and Spain, the river Guadiana is crossed by a long motorway suspension bridge. For foot passengers and cyclists an old, wide bottomed ferry does the job instead.

For only seven Euros we chugged across and passed seamlessly into Spain. No passports, no Covid vaccination certificates, no passenger locator forms. Just masks. It was almost like the old days.

Ferry to Spain

As in any country, Portugal has its own curiosities. Sardines are served to your table still in the can. Cutlery comes in a paper bag to keep off the dust (and more recently the virus). Pastel de Nata are a daily obsession.

But one of the most endearing curiosities is that men and women say thank you slightly differently.

It’s obrigado for men and obrigada for women, regardless of who you’re talking to, although nobody much cares if you get it wrong.

We’ve loved exploring Portugal on bicycles (including the Alentejo!).

So it’s a Muito Obrigada from her and a Muito Obrigado from him. We are both much obliged!

Clare and Andy

Our stats in Portugal …

1,222 kilometres pedalled

11,489 metres climbed

83 hours in the saddle

Magical mystery tour

As you cycle south towards Lisbon three things happen:

1. There are lots more tourists around. Further north, we only came across intrepid French tour groups. Now there are people from everywhere across Europe, which makes for much more of a buzz!

2. You need more cash. Everything becomes that bit a more expensive. This is best explained by the Clare & Andy Coffee Index which we use to measure the relative cost of everything, wherever we are.

In Porto, an abatonado (long black coffee) was €1.50. In the countryside it could be as low as 75 cents but by the time we reached Lisbon it was as much as €3.50!

3. It becomes a lot more hilly. A lot! Our average daily climbing metres increased from around 300 metres to well over 700 metres.

One of the steepest hills we tried and failed to cycle up wound it’s way up to Sintra, a fantasy hill station just north of Lisbon and the summer playground of Portuguese Kings and various other eccentrics.

As Sintra is much too hilly for sightseeing by bicycle, we decided to hire Twizy … a little electric buggy that we could just about squeeze into together for a magical mystery tour around the various attractions.

First stop on the mystery tour was the Quinta da Regaleira, an extravaganza dreamed up by an Italian opera-set designer on the orders of a Brazilian coffee tycoon locally known as Monteiro dos Milhões (Moneybags Monteiro).

The villa is packed with ferociously carved fireplaces and Venetian glass mosaics but it is in the gardens where they really set their imagination free. Footpaths wriggle through dense foliage to follies, fountains, lakes and underground grottoes, all eventually leading to the Initiation Well that has now become a symbol of Sintra.

As you descend nine spirals of the staircase to a mysterious underground gallery at the base of the well, the nature of the initiation is never explained. But there are dark hints that it involved the rituals of the Knights Templar!

Next stop was the Palacio de Monserrate, a Moorish-Gothic-Indian romantic folly created by a wealthy Englishman in the 19th century and surrounded by gardens from all corners of the world … English roses to Mexican yuccas to Japanese bamboo.

A corridor at Montserrate

Then onto the Convento dos Capuchos (Convent of the Hoods). Here monks lived a simple but well-ordered life in tiny hobbit-hole cells with low, narrow cork-lined doors.

But these cells weren’t cramped enough for one reclusive celibate, Honorius, who moved into a tiny burrow in the ground and stayed there for 36 years.

Mind you, he lived until 95 years of age, so maybe he knew a thing or two!

The Palácio da Pena is the antithesis of this spartan monastery. Built in the 19th century as the kings summer retreat, it’s a wacky, colourful confection of lilac and lemon towers, moorish domes and writhing stone snakes gazing across at a vast Moorish castle that became part of the estate.

Sintra is only 28km away from Lisbon.

However, as aspiring touring cyclists we decided to cycle 75km around the coast instead … just to take a picture at the lighthouse that marks the most western point in Europe.

Luckily we were powered by Travesseiros de Sintra, a puff pastry ‘pillow’ filled a syrupy, creamy mixture of almonds, egg yolk and cinnamon. Enough calories to last several days!

As we cruised down a rewarding 12km descent and along the mouth of the Tagus river into Lisbon, we agreed the longer journey was worthwhile after all. As the famous bridge got closer and the city came to life, we jostled with an increasing number of cars, bikes, electric scooters, runners and tourists.

Each morning we were woken by the sound of old trams rumbling by. But we didn’t mind one bit … as this is the authentic sound of Lisbon.

Dating from 1930’s, they’re still the best form of transport to climb up and down the steep, winding cobbled streets of the old town. From time to time, the road narrows so much that pedestrians are squeezed into doorways as the tram rattles by.

Lisbon struck us as a city to hang out in … and there are lots of people doing just that. At pavement cafes, in parks and at Miradors (viewpoints) each of which came with its own busker playing Van Morrison or Ed Sheeran songs.

View from one of the many Miradors

It’s also the city of Fado, a unique type of traditional music featuring soulful vocals, backed by the lilting sound of a 12-string pear-shaped Portuguese guitar and by a classical Spanish guitar.

The mournful lyrics are often about the sea or the life of the poor, and are infused with a sentiment of resignation, fate and melancholic yearning for the past. To some extent, Fado is a window into the character of the people here. This is captured by the Portuguese word saudade … a deep emotional state of nostalgia or longing for something or someone that has been irreparably lost.

Fado

As well as hanging out with everyone else, we did manage to drag ourselves along to what turned out to be the most extravagant monastery of them all. The Mosteiro dos Jeronimos was built to celebrate Vasco de Gama’s discovery of a sea route to India that would bring the country even more wealth.

Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

It includes a room that pays homage to many of the most famous Portuguese kings, including the nicknames given to them by the people.

Hence, the first king (Afonso I, 1139-85) is known as the The Founder or The Great.

Peter I (1357-67) whose love story we described in the last blog, was know as The Cruel because of the nature of his revenge. And perhaps because his other nickname The Till-the-End-of-the-World-Passionate was rather a mouthful.

Others nicknames the kings probably liked include …

The Handsome (Ferdinand I, 1367-83)

The One with Good Memory (Joao I, 1385-1433)

The Musician King (Joao IV, 1640-56)


But these kings might not have been so sure …

The Nuns Lover (Joao V, 1706-50)

The Asleep (Sebastian I, 1557-78)

The Fat (Afonso II, 1211-23)

Praça do Comércio, Lisbon

After all this sightseeing in Sintra and Lisbon, it’s now time for us to get back on our bikes to cycle south through the sand dunes and coastal plains of the Alentejo.

We’re looking forward to it. After all, there’s no mystery about bicycle touring.

It’s simply magic!

Clare and Andy

Picture Perfect Portugal

As we rode out of the delightful seaside village of São Pedro de Moel and climbed gently through a wood of maritime pines and huge eucalyptus trees, we were greeted by wide smiles and cheery “Bom dia’s” from every family we passed. Trees make everyone happy.

The air felt crisp and cool, the sun warm on faces. This was bike touring at its best.

Rounding a corner, we suddenly emerged into a starker landscape of charcoal stumps and blackened earth. It was all too familiar.

For several days we’d been cycling through the remains of the vast Leira Pine Forest, planted to build the sailing ships that drove Portugals golden Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Unfortunately, 86% of the 110 square kilometre forest was destroyed by a huge wildfire in 2017. This small wood near São Pedro is a reminder of how glorious it must have been.

After the fire

On our route south from Porto to Lisbon, we’ve been alternating coastal rides with diversions inland to visit some of the great historical sites … Coimbra, Batalha, Alcobaça, Óbidos.

This part of Portugal seems ideal for bicycle touring. The distances are manageable (around 50km or 30 miles a day), it’s relatively flat and if you travel north to south you have a good chance of a tail wind to blow you along. We’ve been blessed with many sun filled days and a ‘Goldilocks-just-right’ warmth of around 25°c.

It’s also good value for money, both the accommodation and for eating out. As well as small hotels and Casas (traditional guest houses), we’ve stayed in several self-catering Alojamento Local (local accommodation) which have recently sprung up across the country.

Alojamento Local

Bike touring in Covid times has been easier than we expected. At the time of writing Portugal has relatively low cases and the highest vaccination rate in Europe … so it feels very safe.

To enter the country we had to show evidence of a negative PCR test or a double vaccination certificate. This is also required for tourist accommodation and, bizarrely, for indoor dining from Friday through Sunday (but not for the rest of the week, when restaurants seem to be just as full!)

We were worried that Brexit might cause us some difficulty as the UK is not yet part of the EU Digital Covid Certificate. This means that hotels and restaurants can’t scan our QR codes for proof of vaccination as they do for everyone else.

But it doesn’t seem to matter.

We say “… sorry, the scan doesn’t work for the UK one …” They then shrug, mutter “Inglês?”, shrug again … and we’re shown to our table.

Sardines and fries – a Portuguese staple

Here in Portugal people wear masks a lot. They’re mandatory inside and on public transport but plenty of people, young and old, choose to wear masks outside too. We’ve even seen them worn on a deserted beach … just in case!

Masking up at the end of a long ride when we arrive at our accommodation can get tricky. Sorting out the bikes, fumbling about with the panniers, lugging them upstairs, whilst chatting to the owner with steamed up glasses and sweat soaking through the masks can be a challenge!

All masked up for a boat ride

One reason why Portugal is such a great country for bike touring is that there are so many stunning things to see. A lot of them date from the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries, when the Portuguese Kings had more money than they knew what to do with, so splurged it on lavish buildings.

Much of this cash came from a lucrative trade in gold, spices and slaves as the ships built from the wood of the Leira pine forest plundered their way around the world. Whilst it’s impossible today to sympathise with the ethics behind the source of the wealth, it’s difficult not to be staggered by the beauty of the architecture.

The royal palace, library and chapel at the ancient university in Coimbra, Portugal’s first capital.

Chapel of Sao Miguel, University of Coimbra

The castle and maze of well-preserved medieval houses in Óbidos.

Óbidos

But most striking of all, the imposing grandeur of the monasteries at Batalha and Alcobaça.

Batalha Monastery

Batalha, built to commemorate a crucial victory over Castile, took 200 years to complete. Ironically it is the Unfinished Chapels that most astonish visitors, the scale of the pillars and their ornamentation are even more dramatic for being open to the sky.

Unfinished Chapels at Batalha

At the monastery in Alcobaça we came across a tale of two star-crossed lovers to rival Romeo and Juliet.

In 1340 Afonso IV, King of Portugal, married his son and heir Pedro to Costanza of Castile. She was accompanied to the Portuguese court by Inês de Castro (her lady-in-waiting) … “beautiful as a flower, blond as the sun” … and just 15 years old.

Pedro fell in love at first sight … but with the wrong Spanish lady. He and Inês soon began an all-consuming love affair that threatened to rip Portugal and Castile apart, especially when Costanza died a few years later.

Alcobaça monastery

Fearing trouble and strife, Afonso refused to let the lovers marry and instead banished Inês. Desperate to be together, they found a way to live together in secret and even had four children.

Eventually the old King could stand it no longer and ordered her death. Three assassins rode to Coimbra and violently decapitated her in front of her small children. Her spirit can still be heard crying at the Fountain of Tears, site of her murder.

As you can imagine, Pedro was not happy about this. When Afonso died 2 years later the new king immediately set about tracking down the assassins. He found two of them, tried them for murder and ripped out their hearts with his bare hands … in revenge for breaking his own.

According to the legend, he then had Inês exhumed, dressed her in queenly robes and made all his courtiers swear allegiance by kissing what was left of her hand. Ugh!

She was reburied in the abbey at Alcobaça where they now lie together ‘até ao fim do mundo’ (until the end of the world). Quite a story!

Tomb of Inês de Castro

Cycling down the endless beaches and sand dunes of the Silver Coast (named for the silvery glow of the ocean on sunny days) has been a perfect contrast.

This is a surfers coast, every beach is dotted with human seals waiting for the perfect wave. We stayed at Nazaré, where an offshore canyon famously combines with Atlantic storms to create the biggest waves in the world, towering some 30m above the beach. Andy was tempted to have a go but, sadly, conditions weren’t right on the day of our visit and the waves were a bit small for him.

Small waves at Nazaré

No bike tour would be the same without some ‘dreadful detours’ and sure enough, Andy’s map reading skills have led Clare up the normal quota of rough stone tracks. But EV1 has been just as guilty, occasionally asking us to canyon around a steep cliff or climb a precipitous rocky path.

An EV1 dreadful detour

To be fair, EV1’s dreadful detours usually ended with a spectacular view. Andy’s just finished in a swamp!

Our next stop is Sintra, a fairytale land of dense forest sprinkled with imposing hilltop castles, mystical gardens and strange mansions. Not a place for getting lost. After all, we don’t want any ghostly tears!

Clare & Andy

Pedalling back to planet normal

As we bumped down the cobbled streets of Porto and wound our way past the decaying port wine warehouses that line the Douro river estuary, we felt a frisson of excitement for the open road ahead wrapped in a blanket of familiarity.

Back on our bikes. The weight of our panniers. A salty breeze in our faces.

Leaving Porto

As we all know, it’s been a tough 18 months for many people across the world since COVID-19 raised it’s ugly head. A world of lockdowns, restrictions, cancellations, social distance, travel plans on hold. A world of severe illness and loss.

Many, many people have suffered far more badly than we have. After all, cancelled bike tours are hardly the worst impact of a global pandemic.

But here we are at last. Back on our bikes and armed with vaccination passports, lateral flow tests and passenger locator forms.

It felt like a little bit of normal.

Leaving London Heathrow

Our original plan was to cycle down the East Coast of the United States from Boston to Miami. But the American government are not yet welcoming vaccinated Brits to their shores so that will need to wait for another time.

We’ve come to Portugal instead, seeking warm air and warm hospitality. Our plan is simply to cycle south from Porto and see where it takes us. Mainly following Eurovelo 1 (EV1) down the coast but wiggling inland whenever there is something interesting to see. Hopefully into Spain as well.

EV1, the Eurovelo Atlantic Coast Route, is part of a network of cycle paths that criss-cross Europe and runs from Norway to Portugal. We’ve cycled bits of it before, as it includes the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland.

Porto by day
Porto by night

Porto (literally port or harbour) is a spectacular city that twists its way up from the mouth of the Douro river in a maze of medieval streets, colourful houses and ornate churches.

Pastel de Nata

Some of the food is as unique as the city itself. 

We enjoyed the port wine (of course), the Pastel de Nata (deliciously light custard and cinnamon tarts that are a one-a-day treat for many) but were not so sure about the Francesinha (literally little Frenchie, as it was adapted to local Porto tastes from the Croque Monsieur sandwich in the 1950’s).

A steak, some fresh sausage, cured sausage and cured ham are all stuffed inside two slices of bread and covered with melted cheese and an optional fried egg.  It’s then doused in a hot thick spicy tomato and beer sauce and served with chips and a large beer.

Enough calories to fuel any bike ride!

Francesinha – a Porto speciality

But not enough for a ride into the steep hills of the Douro Valley.

Haunted by memories of long, hilly days at the beginning of past trips we decided to take a tour instead. As we drove up yet another sharp ridge it felt like a smart decision … and gave us more time for wine tasting!

The Douro valley is stunning. Terraced vineyards, built behind ancient dry stone walls climb precipitously away from the river as far the eye can see, their whitewashed quintas (wine estates) glistening in the sunshine. Many with names that remember the end of a good dinner … Sandeman, Dow, Taylor’s, Graham’s, Croft.

Douro Valley

The first few days of this bicycle adventure have been spent gently pedalling down the coast on flat roads, cycle paths and board walks. Through pretty little beach towns and across salt marshes that attract a variety of migratory birds … herons, egrets, even some flamingoes.

A striking part of this area are azulejos, decorative tiles that adorn many buildings. In a tradition dating back to the 13th century these hand painted tiles help keep houses cool and beautiful.

Ovar, our first overnight stop, is a ‘living museum’ of azulejos with many fine examples from the 19th and 20th century.

Railway Station art

From Ovar we cycled onto Aveiro, a city that grew rich from salt but now relies on tourism as the self styled ‘Venice of Portugal’. It’s not quite as grand as the Queen of the Adriatic … although a gondola ride makes for a pleasant diversion, passing under many bridges adorned with thousands of brightly coloured ribbons.

Our young guide giggled as she encouraged us to join in … “you can tie a ribbon on the bridge for everlasting love and friendship … ooh-la-la!”

Sadly the ribbon shop was closed for lunch.

Each gondola in Aveiro has it’s own ‘kiss-me-quick’ image

The next day, we were reminded that bicycle touring is not all about easy cycle paths, boat rides and pretty coastal views. A fierce headwind blew up and it poured with rain as we struggled into Praia de Mira, sodden and a little weary.

It almost felt like cycling in England.

Arriving in Praia de Mira in the rain

But not quite. We’re in Portugal. Back on our bikes.

Ooh-la-la!

Praia de Mira, the next morning

Clare and Andy

From the frying pan into the fire

This is now an old story. But it’s still a story worth telling.

Much has happened since we left Vietnam on Tuesday March 10th. The coronavirus pandemic has taken over the world with many countries in lockdown. At the time of writing, the UK has sadly suffered more deaths from Covid-19 than any other European country. The government estimates that around 7% of the population or 4.7 million people have caught the virus with over 300,000 confirmed by a positive test.

In contrast, Vietnam has had 355 official cases, Cambodia 141 and Laos just 19. So far, none of these countries have recorded a single death linked to Covid-19. Indeed, Vietnam is now cited by many experts as having one of the best epidemic control programs in the world, alongside Taiwan and South Korea.

It seems that the Vietnamese authorities learnt a lot from previous viral outbreaks, including Sars in 2003 and Avian Flu in 2010. They took fast, decisive action as soon as the first case arrived from Wuhan on January 23rd.

The border with China was immediately closed, schools remained shut after the New Year Tet holiday and strict quarantines were placed around any local outbreaks. Most impressively, every single case was individually recorded and all the people they’d been in contact with were traced, tested and isolated. Then they traced the contacts of the contacts … and so on.

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Dalat

On Sunday March 8th we were enjoying a pizza in the old French hill station of Dalat, excited about our final 4-day bike ride back to Saigon and completing a round trip of over 2000km.

Another long cruise downhill would take us through some beautiful but remote mountain countryside, before reaching the outskirts of the city. Accommodation for the first two nights had been difficult to find, but eventually we’d managed to book a small guesthouse by a pretty lake about 10km off our route.

We were really looking forward to the ride. Until that is, we received this message from the guesthouse …

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We’d noticed that concern about Covid-19 had grown significantly in Vietnam over the previous few days. Most people were now wearing masks and our temperature was taken at every hotel, restaurant and museum. This had surprised us a little, as the country only had 16 cases at that time and were proud to have gone 22 days without anyone testing positive.

After a little googling, we soon found out why visitors from the UK were suddenly less welcome. A Vietnamese ‘socialite’ had flown back to Hanoi from London, after visiting the Milan Fashion Show. She turned out to be a super-spreader, infecting all the people around her on the plane. Most of them were British tourists heading to Vietnam for a special holiday.

This meant that the headlines in the local news were full of the danger of any contact with Brits. And any other Europeans for that matter. On Instagram we learnt that other bicycle tourists were suddenly being turned away from guesthouses, restaurants and even shops.

We could see that people were becoming a bit wary of us. Smiles were replaced with nervous glances. Perhaps we were not quite as welcome as we had been? Maybe it was time to leave?

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Instead of cycling back to Saigon, we jumped on a bus. Once there, we rode through the busy traffic in the dark to find a travel agent and change our flights. 48 hours after finishing that pizza in Dalat, we were on the plane home … a week ahead of schedule but pleased to be getting back to our families.

As things turned out we were leaping from the frying pan into the fire, leaving a safe country behind us and returning to a country where the number of coronavirus infections were accelerating quickly.

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It was disappointing to leave Dalat by bus as we’d also arrived by car … not really the point of a bicycle tour!

The bike ride up to Dalat from the coast is beautiful but brutal. 150km and over 3500m of climbing with little along the way to break the journey. No lodgings, no restaurants, not even any small shops selling water. Many young adventurous bicycle tourists have had great fun going down … very few have tried to cycle up.

It was clearly beyond our capabilities!

Dalat itself is the cheesy-music love-capital of Vietnam, hugely popular with honeymooners and hen parties. A few dollars to one of the many street karaoke busking groups buys you a great night out. You get a backing band and an appreciative audience of several hundred like-minded romantics as you belt out “Killing me softly with his song … ” or “I-e-ii-ee-iiiii will always love yooouuuu … “

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Snacks in Dalat

Our journey from Hoi An to Dalat had begun with yet another bus (we know … this is turning into a troubling theme). There was not enough time to cycle the rest of the way down the coast, so we picked a section that promised ‘a spectacular mix of craggy wind-lashed capes, fishing villages and pretty coves.’ Just as importantly, it also promised plenty of backroads away from the trucks rumbling down Highway 1.

This time it was one of the dreaded night buses, infamous with young backpackers. Built for small Vietnamese people, not for tall foreigners, Andy had to squeeze so tightly into his seat that he appeared to be trapped in an old-fashioned fairground ride!

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After eight sleepless hours, the bus dropped us off at 3am on the outskirts of a sprawling and rather soulless city called Tuy Hoa. We didn’t particularly fancy cycling in the dark so looked around for a hotel to hang out in for a couple of hours. They all looked a bit seedy, with big neon signs advertising 24-hour massages. Sure enough, as we locked up our bikes, a lady-of-the-night tottered out, presumably on her way home.

The night manager then followed her out to find out what we were up to.  Once he understood our situation, he couldn’t have been any nicer, offering drinks, power for our phones and a quiet lie down on the lobby sofa.

vietnam south east coast

Just before dawn we waved him goodbye and headed off in search of the coast road, some strong coffee and breakfast. Everything was closed but eventually we came across a street stall offering delicious Bánh Mì (Omelette Baguettes), just the right energy boost for the 75km ahead of us.

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This part of the Vietnamese coast is a land of contrasts.

Some parts of it are indeed very pretty … craggy capes, secluded coves, chalk-white beaches and small islands nestled in a turquoise sea. But there’s also a lot of industry here with oil refineries and giant ports dotting the horizon.

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Most striking are the multitude of fish farms which stretch out across the bays as far as the eye can see. Farmers and their families live on the floating houses, growing fish, shrimp and crab to serve the incessant demand from city markets with their ever-expanding population.

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Fish farms

Traditional fishing boats, each painted blue with a red trim, potter between the farms and head out at night in search of the wild tuna and bream.

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The fish farms are an arresting site. Less attractive are the piles of rubbish that build up by the side of the road. Managing single-use plastic waste is global issue that is brought into sharp focus in this part of the world.  People simply discard their leftovers on the ground as their forefathers have done for centuries. Unfortunately, unlike the waste of previous generations, plastic doesn’t degrade … so it just sits there waiting to be burnt every few months.

Occasionally as we cycled along a quiet road a bus would drive past us with empty bottles and cans literally raining out of the windows. It would be comical, if it wasn’t so sad.

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Beauty spoiled

This is a representative of a wider problem that applies to all three countries but especially to Vietnam, with its higher population density and rapid economic development.

Vietnamese people are rightly optimistic about the future. But many are also worried that their natural resources are being quickly exhausted to fuel the economic growth. Forests are being burnt down, cities rapidly enlarged, waterways polluted. They know that their country will need to nurture its natural resources much better in future for the good times to be sustainable.

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Trying not to notice the piles of rubbish, we meandered down the coast at a gentle pace, pausing for a couple of nights on Whale Island and at a quiet beachside retreat called ‘Some Days of Silence.’ There was no need to hurry.

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Whale Island

For our last night on the coast, we treated ourselves to a taste of luxury at one of the upmarket resorts that grace Ninh Van Bay and can only be reached by speedboat. Described in the guidebook as an ‘alternative reality populated by European royalty, film stars and the otherwise rich and secretive’, we were not sure what they would make of two sweaty cyclists.

Here we’d arranged to meet up with Richard and Sue, the friends from home that we’d bumped into by surprise back in Champasak. As the sun set over the hills that lead up to Dalat, we toasted both our trips with some very welcome crisp white wine.

We didn’t know it at the time, but it was to be the end of this particular cycling adventure. A perfect celebration!

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Here’s the map of our whole trip around Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos:

se asia map 1 whole trip

We have to admit that there are a lot more red lines (for buses), green lines (for cars) and pink lines (for boats) on this map than usual.

But we still pedalled 1712km, climbed 18,629m and spent 126 hours in our saddles. That’s slightly more kilometres than our trips to Chile or to Australia.

And we only had two mechanical problems, both punctures to Andy’s rear wheel.

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Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are three very different countries, but they’re all great places to tour around by bicycle.

The scenery is spectacular … from the green rice carpets of the Mekong Delta to the rough red clay roads of Northeast Cambodia … from the temples of Angkor to the tranquillity of the Four Thousand Islands in landlocked Laos … from the cassava and coffee plantations of the Bolaven Plateau to the thick, high jungle of the Ho Chi Minh highway.

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As you set out at sunrise in the cool morning air there are endless scenes of everyday life to entertain you … families cooking noodles for breakfast under their house, hawkers selling dried fish, women slowly pedalling back from the market in brightly coloured pyjamas topped with conical leaf hats.

Once you get used to the rules of the road it’s even fun to cruise through town, scooters buzzing past in every direction.

But four months after coming home, it’s still the sound of children’s voices that we remember most …  “Heyoooo … Heyoooo mister … Heyoooo mummy … Heyoooooo!!!”

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Whilst the world fights back against this terrible virus, we can conjure up this soundtrack to lull us off to sleep … and start dreaming about where to go next.

Until then …

Clare and Andy

From Hamburgers to Noodle Soup

 

Dong Ap Bia (the Mountain of the Crouching Beast) stands 14 kilometres west of A-Luoi, a small town nestled in the central highlands of Vietnam. Officially called Hill 937 by the US army, it was the site of one the most famous battles of the Vietnam War in May 1969 … known thereafter as ‘Hamburger Hill’.

“Have you ever been inside a hamburger machine? Well we just got cut to pieces by extremely accurate machine-gun fire.”

Sergeant James Spears, 19 years old

For some people, Hamburger Hill became a symbol of the bravery of both the attacking American infantry and the North Vietnamese defenders.

For others it epitomised the futility and waste of this long war.

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On the day we crossed back into Vietnam from Laos we stayed overnight in A-Luoi.

Waving goodbye to Mr Poh and his school bus we had spent the afternoon cycling down through high jungle to join the Ho Chi Minh Highway. This road follows the route of the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail, a network of mountain footpaths that were used to supply and reinforce Vietcong fighters in the south. The attack on Hamburger Hill was part of a campaign to stop this supply.

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Just over the border from Laos

The ‘Rakkasans’ from the 101st Airborne (one of the US Army’s most decorated units) fought their way up the steep slopes battling with triple canopy jungle and waist high elephant grass as well as the machine gun fire. They were repelled again and again by the ‘Pride of Ho Chi Minh’, the elite North Vietnamese 29th regiment.

After dropping more than 1000 tonnes of bombs, 140 tonnes of napalm, 31000 rounds of 20mm shells and 500 tonnes of teargas, the Americans eventually prevailed and took control of the ‘moonscape’ that was left of the summit. 72 Americans lay dead with 370 wounded. Estimates of North Vietnamese losses vary, but at least 600 were killed.

The Americans only stayed for a couple of days before they abandoned Hamburger Hill. A few months later the North Vietnamese were back in their original positions.

It was the apparent futility of this battle that whipped up the anti-war sentiment that was then building a strong head of steam in America. Senator Edward Kennedy reflected the view of many people when he called the battle “senseless and irresponsible”.

At the time of Hamburger Hill, America had over 500,000 troops in Vietnam but this turned out to be the high water mark of their involvement. By the end of 1969 US troops had begun to withdraw and their focus had switched to training the South Vietnamese army to bear the brunt of the fighting. This eventually led to the North Vietnamese victory in 1975.

Today both the hill and the whole area is very peaceful, mountain rice growing in the valleys and birdsong replacing the sound of gunfire in the hills.

It’s difficult to imagine the horror that both sides endured. Except that the landscape is very familiar to anyone who has watched a few Vietnam War films. So familiar that you almost expect to see an Apache attack helicopter appearing over the next ridge.

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The tank that marked the end of the war

As we cycled around the country, we enjoyed learning a little about the ‘American War’ (as it’s known in Vietnam) from their perspective. The War Remnants Museum in Saigon is a stark reminder of the hardships and atrocities faced by ordinary people. The tours to the complex multi-level network of tunnels at Cu Chi show off the ingenuity of the Vietcong and the difficulty the Americans had in facing an enemy that kept melting away. And Tank 390 still guards the grounds of the presidential palace, having crashed through the gates on April 30th 1975 to end the war.

Ultimately though, we have been left with a feeling that this war of attrition became senseless. For everyone involved.

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Emerging from the Cu Chi tunnels

A-Luoi was the most undiluted Vietnamese town we visited. We stayed in a motel style guesthouse, no-one we met spoke English and it was tricky to find somewhere to eat. We walked past lots of beer gardens and coffee shops but no restaurants.

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At the guesthouse in A-Luoi

Eventually we managed to find a large bag of pistachio nuts and headed into a family run café to enjoy them with a beer. The family had just finished their own dinner so, more in hope than expectation, we made eating signs to the lady. She must have seen our faces drop as she shook her head because she disappeared, returning fifteen minutes later with a big smile and two steaming bowls of noodles, packed with chicken, vegetables and fresh salad.

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Noodle Soup

It was one of the most delicious meals we had in Vietnam. Much better than the hamburgers we’d been hoping to find … in tribute to the nearby hill!

To her obvious delight we gave her half our remaining pistachios. It seemed only right. The bag had cost us more than she insisted on charging for the meal.

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The next day’s ride down to Hue was one of best days we’ve ever had on a bicycle. Under a cloudless sky we wound our way down through stunning jungle canopy, up over a pass then down again into the wide fertile valley of the Perfume River (named for the flowers that drop into its clear waters).

It was the kind of day that reminds you that the simplicity of bicycle touring is one of the best experiences in the world.

“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.”

Ernest Hemingway

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Coffee break on one of our best ever biking days

People we’d met on our travels had told us that Hue was a bit of a disappointment. Well we beg to differ, we loved it.

It was the imperial capital of the last emperors of Vietnam, the Nguyen dynasty that ruled from 1802 to 1945. Today it is a vibrant, bustling city that blends old and new, wide embankments on both sides of the river giving it an air of calm.

The main attraction is the citadel, home to the Nguyen emperors and their seat of government. Several walls are pockmarked with bullet holes as an evocative reminder of the major battle that raged here in 1968 during the Tet offensive.  Most of the buildings were destroyed but they are now being lovingly restored to their former glory. It’s a huge site and a wonderful place to get a little lost in, roaming through tree-lined boulevards, ceremonial reception rooms and ornate gardens.

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The Citadel at Hue

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A few kilometres upriver from the Citadel is another poignant reminder of the conflict. Tucked away in a corner of the Thien Mu Pagoda complex is an old 1956 Austin saloon car that transported a monk called Thich Quang Duc to Saigon, where he calmly set himself on fire as a protest against the policies of the South Vietnamese regime. Captured by an American film crew it became one of the most emotive images of the war.

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We also enjoyed the tomb of Tu Duc, emperor at the time of the French invasion in 1883 and a man who lived a life of imperial luxury and carnal excess (104 wives, countless concubines but no offspring). Just 5 foot small he decreed that the statues of the mandarins guarding his tomb had to be even smaller than he was.

But he wasn’t buried here. Instead he was interned at a secret location where the 200 servants who helped with the burial were beheaded to stop the location and its treasures being discovered. It worked … the site has never been found.

One entertainment enjoyed by Tu Duc were the fights between tigers and elephants at Ho Quyen, a mini Romanesque amphitheatre that now sits in the middle of a quiet suburb. The tigers had their claws and teeth removed so that the elephants, a symbol of the emperor’s power, could triumph every time!

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Elephants, horses and mini-mandarins guarding the tomb for Tu Duc

From Hue, we cycled 160km down the coast to the graceful and historic town of Hoi An, full of preserved merchant houses, ancient tea warehouses and Chinese temples.

At first, the road took us past miles and miles of sand dunes all filled with thousands of graves and elaborate private family mausoleums. These are the final resting places of Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese), all seeking to be buried in their homeland.

Ancestors are worshipped in Vietnam and the majority of people are buried, often in large tombs on the family small holding. Given that the population has doubled to 99 million since the end of the war in 1975 (it’s now the world’s 15th most populated country), the density of tombs of this ‘road of death’ did make us wonder whether the rest of the country would look the same in future, such will be the demand for graves.

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Graves in the dunes on the ‘road of death’

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Some very elaborate

Just north of the large coastal city of Danang is the Hai Van (Sea Cloud) pass, a mountain spur than runs down to the sea and a sizeable cycling challenge at 496m high. It’s an important North-South divide both strategically and geographically, protecting Danang from the fierce ‘Chinese’ winds that sweep in from the north east.

The main artery of Vietnam, Highway 1, used to run over this pass but today there is a 6.3km long tunnel. Unfortunately, neither livestock nor fuel are allowed through the tunnel so we had to stop frequently to avoid the trucks full of pigs and petrol, recklessly overtaking each other on the hairpin bends.

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Looking back from the lower slopes of the Hai Van pass

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A pig truck on a hairpin bend

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A narrow escape for this motorbike (and us!)

Further entertainment was to be found at the Marble Mountains south of Danang, five craggy marble outcrops named for the five natural elements (water, wood, fire, metal and earth). Each one has an army of statues for sale at their base – from the ever-popular Laughing Fat Buddha to replicas of the Venus de Milo. The actual marble in the mountains is now exhausted … so it’s imported from China instead.

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Anyone fancy a fat buddha for their garden?

In Hoi An we were suddenly surrounded by tourists. Not surprising as it’s a delightful place, especially at night when the roads are closed to traffic and the town is lit up by thousands of lanterns. This makes it feel slightly like a Disneyland version of itself … but creates a fun atmosphere.

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The old buildings of Hoi An

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Traditional Vietnamese Nón Lá’ … Leaf Hats

As well as a few of the 800 historic buildings we enjoyed traditional Vietnamese food, traditional music and dance and traditional water puppets. Much to our amusement each show was wrapped up by a rendition of Auld Lang Syne, sung in English. And no, they didn’t know the words either!

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Our favourite: Bánh Xèo … crispy pancakes filled with shrimps and fresh vegetables

Perhaps our most magical moment in Hoi An came early one evening as we cycled around the paddy fields that encircle the town. A light sea breeze had blown up and several groups of grandparents (who would have known the horrors of the war) emerged onto the pathways that criss-cross the fields to enjoy flying kites with their grandchildren.

The air was filled with colour and laughter. It was a bewitching scene and one that made the American War seem like a very long time ago.

Clare and Andy

 

Apologies – we’re a little bit behind with this blog. 

We cycled from the Laos border to Hoi An between 23rd and 27th February. We’re now safely back home, having left Vietnam a few days earlier than planned when the Covid-19 virus made cycle touring a little complicated. We’ll tell that story in the next post.

Laid back in Laos

We only started to get worried when the border guards summoned the bossman to examine our passports for a third time, all stern and officious in his crisp green Vietnamese army uniform.

Quite reasonably, they were on high alert for the coronavirus.

Our temperatures had already been checked and two masked officers had carefully scrutinised our passports, checking and double checking each stamp to make 100% sure we hadn’t recently been to China.

A few days before, we’d read that some travellers had been turned away from remote borders (such as this one at Lalay) if they had a Chinese visa in their passport, no matter how out of date it was. Andy has three Chinese visas (a legacy from his old job), the most recent of which expired in 2015.

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Part of the Lalay Border Post

First the bossman studied the front of Andy’s passport to make sure of his nationality. This was quite amusing as most of the lettering had worn away and become impossible to read. He was only satisfied when we persuaded him that, honestly, it was the same type of passport as Clare’s and therefore came from the same country.

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You can see his problem

Then he painstakingly examined every single entry and exit stamp whilst his junior colleagues gathered around pointing and shaking their heads. Andy has 94 stamps in his passport, so this took quite a while.

Eventually and with enormous relief, as much for him as for us, he looked up and smiled … “Welcome to Vietnam!”

It’s not that we wanted to leave Laos. It’s that we’d like to head home in a few weeks time and crossing back into Vietnam makes that a whole lot easier. Plus … we really felt like we were in the middle of nowhere!

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On the way up to the border

The people of southern Laos are amongst the most laid back individuals we have ever met.  Guided by Theravada Buddhism which emphasises ‘the cooling of human passions’, they don’t get too worked up about the future, considering it to be determined by karma rather than by devotion or hard work. They also believe that ‘too much work is bad for your brain’ and feel sorry for people who ‘think too much’.

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The people we’ve met in Vietnam and Cambodia appear to be quite driven by comparison. It’s neatly summed up by a French saying:

‘The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians tend the rice and the Lao listen to it grow.’

But they also come across as a happy bunch. Unless any activity, work or leisure, contains an element of fun, it’s not worth pursuing.

img_1133It was very easy to be seduced into the laid back life of Si Phan Don, literally meaning ‘Four Thousand Islands’. Here the Mekong bulges to a breadth of 14km, slowly easing it’s way past a few large inhabited islands and many islets and sandbars, then rushing down a series of rapids and waterfalls.

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This natural barrier gives the Mekong it’s special charm – it’s one of the world’s great rivers meandering 4350km from the Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea, but it can never become a shipping super-highway.

img_1149We enjoyed some gentle days pottering around the three main islands of Si Phan Don (Don Det, Don Khon and Don Khong), gradually becoming more proficient at manoeuvring our bikes on and off the small longtail boats and more chilled about doing so.

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We came to love the Mekong so much we even made our own tribute to it. Late one afternoon, Andy dived into the refreshing cool water without realising he had some cash tucked in the pocket of his swimming shorts, never to be seen again.

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From Don Khong it was a sweaty and dusty ride 110km up river to Champasak where we enjoyed two lovely surprises.

The first surprise was Wat Pho (meaning Mountain Temple), a contemporary of Angkor which stretches up the slopes of Phu Pasak, a sacred mountain known locally as Mount Penis. It’s a quirky, tumbledown place with attractions that include a crocodile stone carving allegedly used for human sacrifice and a sacred spring that cows now clamber up to for a holy drink.

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Looking down on Wat Pho

The second surprise was to hear our names being bellowed out as we cycled back to Champasak. Unbelievably it was Richard and Sue, good friends from home. We’d planned to meet up in Vietnam in a few weeks time but neither of us had any idea that we’d both be in this part of Laos at the same time. It was really good to see them and to spend an evening of easy conversation over beer and pizza.

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From Champasak, we changed plans and decided to cycle up to Paksong on the Bolaven Plateau, 1300m above sea level and famous for it’s waterfalls and it’s coffee plantations.

Why did we do it? Well, it wasn’t for the coffee. It wasn’t for the waterfalls. It wasn’t even to experience some cooler temperatures. No … the attraction was the promise of a whole day of descending, a whole day of cruising gently downhill.

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Cycling up to the Bolaven Plateau

In the event, Andy very nearly messed it up!

The road he’d planned to go down was the wrong road. Very wrong indeed. It quickly disintegrated into a very rough, very dusty stone track.

For about an hour, we bumped and banged our way down it almost killing our bikes and ourselves in the process. Andy was ever hopeful it would improve on the other side of the next ridge despite Clare’s increasingly frantic protestations. Eventually he had to admit that it was physically impossible for us to go any further.

We turned around and slowly climbed back up.

By the time we got back to the top, we’d run out of time and daylight so were forced to find some emergency accommodation and try again the next morning.

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The Bolaven Plateau is a market garden

This time we found the right road … and it was glorious! Just what we’d dreamed of. Even when crossing the Pyrenees or the Andes we have never cruised down such a long descent, the gradient gently taking us through coffee plantations, past mango groves and fields of cassava. For 50km!!

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Cruising down … all day long!

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It ended in a serene little village called Tat Lo. In recent years, this has become a quiet retreat on the backpacker trail, nestled in a river valley full of forest trails, small waterfalls and swimming holes. It’s location is remote enough for the small guesthouses and cafes selling banana pancakes to sit alongside normal village life, not to overwhelm it.

We stayed in a simple, stilted room in a lovely guesthouse called Palamei, owned by Poh and Tim and named for their daughter.

We’ve enjoyed a wide range of accommodation on this trip, including a couple of luxury hotels as the coronavirus scare has made everything so cheap … but this was one of our favourites.

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Tat Lo Village

We always knew that getting back into Vietnam from this part of Laos was going to be the greatest challenge of our trip.

We looked at various options, including cycling back to Pakse and taking a long sleeper bus ride north to Savannakhet and onto Hue in Vietnam via the main border crossing at Lao Bao. A journey of over 700km this was not a fun prospect for two aging touring cyclists.

We also knew that cycling up to the remote border at Lalay (only 170km away) was beyond our cycling capabilities. It would mean three days of riding over some very steep hills with few towns or villages along the way. A great ride for proper (young) adventure touring cyclists … but not for us!

Poh asked which day we planned to leave. When we told him it was Sunday his face lit up. His van normally serves as the local school bus but Sunday meant no school.

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So that’s what happened. It turned out to be a fascinating journey through a dramatic mountain landscape, the school bus struggling to make it up some of the steeper inclines as we gave grateful thanks to the cycling gods that we weren’t pushing our bikes up instead.

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During the drive up to the border and over a bowl of noodle soup, Poh shared some stories of his life. Born into desperately poor circumstances, he spent several years as a child living in the village temple as his mother had died when he was just two years old. With only rudimentary schooling, he recognised his one good fortune was to be born in a village that was starting to attract tourists, so he worked 16 hour days in a nearby lodge to learn both the business and how to speak English. Eventually he was able to set up his own guesthouse.

Poh and Tim, his wife, have three children but they have also adopted five more, all from the same tough circumstances he knew as a child. Now he is giving back to his community, one small part of which is providing the local school bus.

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Clare and Poh

The journey passed quickly and before long, we found ourselves at the border to be greeted by the smart Vietnamese guards and the medical team.

It’s just as well we didn’t cycle … we’d have been so hot and bothered we’d have failed the temperature test. Then they’d never have let us back into Vietnam!

Clare and Andy

Cycling with your husband

A few people have asked me for some tips on how to stay safe, healthy and happy while cycling with your husband in a place like South East Asia.

I’ve had plenty of time to think about this whilst peddling across rural NE Cambodia and, in the last few days, pushing my bike up a seemingly endless 1200m climb in Laos (we’ll tell this story in our next blog post).

So here are my tips:

Tips to say safe

Follow Andy’s rules of the roads. This has surprised me as my natural instinct is to stop whenever I sense danger. Here, I’ve become a road warrior, maintaining speed and direction … and never ever stopping.

Don’t let him take side roads unless you can see tarmac. They’ll either be rocky and bottom-pummelling or sandy and dusty. A passing truck will inevitably cover you in a gritty cloud of red dust.

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Start cycling at sunrise to avoid the midday sun. So far, the intense heat has curdled my shampoo and heated my water bottle enough to brew a decent cup of tea. It’s also a beautiful time of day and there’s usually far less traffic on the road.

Use suntan lotion sparingly. It was impossible to buy more in rural Cambodia as the locals don’t use it. I’m not even sure they know what it is as people found it very funny when we put some on.

Respect local customs. Covering up your shoulders and knees in rural areas and at temples is polite, even when it’s 33 degrees.

Make him ride in-between you and any dogs. I was chased 3 times before he realised it was his manly duty to protect me.

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Or just get some new wheels …

Tips to stay healthy

Persuade him to take a rest. A few days pottering around the 4000 Islands in southern Laos on the mighty Mekong was restful, replenishing and reflective.

Don’t expect to always get a perfect coffee. Sometimes it comes with condensed milk that sits at the bottom of the cup. Just be grateful you’re having a coffee break at all.

Drink lots of water. Tap water is not safe and whilst refillable water stations are becoming more popular, they’re not yet freely available. Sadly, plastic waste is a real and obvious problem. It feels weird buying a big bottle of water and immediately pouring it into our cycling bidons.

Drink fresh coconut water whenever it’s available … it’s delicious and refreshing! Bottled fruit drinks are usually sticky and very sweet but Japanese green tea flavoured with honey & lemon has become another favourite.

Eat bananas. They’ve become our staple cycling snack. You can only buy them in big bunches … but he can manage the extra weight in his panniers.

Eat well … today’s food is tomorrow’s fuel. We’ve found the food in all three countries to be really good. Local family-run places offering home cooked meals are often better than bigger (more expensive) restaurants.

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50 cents a bunch

Tips to stay happy

Mentally add at least 20% extra to the distance and elevation he’s suggesting for the days ride. That way you won’t have a meltdown when there’s still 10km uphill or off-road to go.

Take public transport if the distance and elevation he’s suggesting is too much.

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Sadly there was no room on this one

Get to know the currency. There are no coins in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos and the notes look very similar especially when they’re well worn. The 50,000 Laos Kip note (about £4.50) looks almost the same as the 5000 Kip note (45p). Andy has got it embarrassingly wrong a few times!

Stick on your headphones when the going gets tough. Gazing out at beautiful scenery is wonderful, but it’s not beautiful all the time. When it becomes less interesting or your backside starts aching, you need a distraction. A podcast or talking book works for me.

Make sure there’s a decent shower to get rid of the dust wherever you stay. We’ve slept in a wide variety of places from homestays to luxurious hotels (very good value at the moment because of the coronavirus). Often the cheapest is the best … right now we’re in a typical Laos room on stilts in a lovely guesthouse for £7/night.

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Our room at Palamei Guesthouse, Tad Lo

Travel light. A good thing about travelling in warm climates is that your clothes dry really quickly. I’m getting used to wearing the same things again and again so next time I’ll try to bring even less. A hotel hairdryer remains a nice surprise but is no longer a necessity – my pink hair roller still does the job well!

And finally … join your husband for a cold beer at the end of the day. It’s tastes great here and is usually the cheapest drink on the menu!

After all … there’s no gain without pain. And he’s still the best cycling buddy a wife could want!

Clare

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Strangers from another world

“Heyoooo … Heyoooo mister … Heyoooo mummy … Heyoooooo!!!”

Little people running out to us, waving, jumping up and down, huge smiles lighting up the dusty, parched landscape.

“Byeeeeeeee!!”

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Followed by noisy, excited laughter, gossip of what they’d said and how they’d waved to these two strangers from another world.

This was our soundtrack from thousands of children as we slowly pedalled by.

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We were cycling along Route 64, a recently paved road that winds it’s way 300km across the remote north east of Cambodia from Siem Reap (home of the famous Angkor temples) to Stung Treng … our gateway to Laos.

It’s a rough, rural landscape that mixes open scrubland with smallholdings growing crops – cassava, peppers, bananas, sugar cane, mangoes, coconuts.

We were rarely alone. Houses are strung out on both sides of this dusty road. As well as the children, we were greeted by women chopping cassava to dry on the roadside or by young men passing by in two-wheeled tractors.

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Cassava is an important cash crop

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Two-wheeled tractor

Best of all was a father bringing a tiny child out to wave back at us and join in the fun. Or four children passing by on a motor scooter (the oldest driving but not yet a teenager) giggling “heyoooooo” in unison.

Cycling is the only way to have this kind of experience … walking is too slow, a motorbike is too fast, a car too enclosed and a bus is too busy.

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There is relatively little fast moving traffic on Route 64, especially east of the Mayan looking 10th century temples at Koh Ker. Most common are hawkers on scooters pedalling vegetables, eggs, salted fish, household items, ice-cream or huge blocks of ice … each with their distinctive call sign.

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Vegetable seller

Sounds like cycling heaven? Nearly, but not quite. It’s hot and dusty at this time of year and small towns that might have places to stay are spaced further apart than we would ideally like.

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This meant we needed to cycle just over 100km from Siem Reap to reach Koh Ker, our first destination. Most of it was slightly uphill, which would have been fine had we not been surprised by a persistent headwind.

This wasn’t an Irish gale. It wasn’t even a stiff breeze. But it was the kind of wind that makes smoke lean sideways. Enough to make you feel that you’re pushing the air aside as you ride through it. And it never stopped!

Luckily, there were lots of places to pause and rest. Nearly every house is a shop of sorts, selling petrol in old water bottles, strange snacks and best of all … fresh coconut water. Delicious and cool, it slipped down like a reviving nectar.

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Petrol station

Much to the locals surprise, we drank a whole coconut each, about half a litre. They had no idea how dehydrating it is to cycle into a warm wind all day. As the day wore on, our stops became more frequent … every 25km, then 15km, then struggling to make 10km.

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The following day was a manageable 65km from Koh Ker to the county town of Preah Vihear. Then we faced a choice … cycle 140km to Stung Treng in one day, stay overnight at the only guesthouse in a small town called Chhaeb (Google review – “only stay there if you have to”) … or find alternative transport.

The minivans that serve as buses couldn’t squeeze us in. So without any expectations, we wandered down to the local taxi rank to see what we could find.

Leaving the next morning at sunrise in Atith’s taxi was possibly the best $30 we’d ever spent. He dropped us off a few kilometres beyond Chhaeb with a pleasant 70km still to cycle. As we put the front wheels back on our bikes in the middle of nowhere, Atith could not hide his amusement at these strangers from another world. He found the whole thing hilarious!

But it turned a tough day into a really enjoyable day.

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Thanks Atith

It also shows how much we’ve changed over the years, especially Andy. We’re now more interested in the experience than the journey. And as longtime readers will know, we’ve never claimed to be real touring cyclists!

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What’s in a letter?

Angkor with an ‘o’ means ‘city’ and is the name of the great civilization of the Khmer kings who ruled Cambodia from the 802 to 1432.

Angkar with an ‘a’ means ‘the organisation’ and is the name the Khmer Rouge used for its own leadership.

Angkor is the country’s national pride and celebrated everywhere, on the national flag, on money, as the leading brand of beer.

Angkar is Cambodia’s deep trauma.

Back in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city and in Siem Reap, it’s major tourist attraction we were able to learn a little of both Angkar and Angkor.

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Of course, we’re not qualified to comment on the terrible atrocities the Khmer Rouge regime inflicted on the Cambodian people from 1975-79, except to say that it still feels recent and raw.

The two sites we visited in Phnom Penh were simply and sympathetically presented. Much is left as it was found and visitors are guided by an excellent audio system that tells the story and creates an atmosphere of quiet reflection.

No-one was taking lots of photographs on the days we were there.

First to the notorious S-21 security prison. Housed in an old school in a quiet suburb, an estimated 20,000 victims were incarcerated and brutally tortured there until they made false confessions. There were only 12 known survivors, each because they had a skill that was useful to their captors.

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The rules at S-21

Then to Choeung Ek, one of 300 ‘Killing Fields’ spread across the country. The people in S-21 were taken here in the middle of the night for execution, made to kneel down beside an open grave and killed with a rough agricultural tool as bullets were too noisy and too precious.

Estimates vary but roughly 2 million people died, a quarter of the population.

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The Memorial Stupa at Choeung Ek, with more than 8000 skulls inside

We had travelled the 320km from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap by bus to avoid several days of cycling on a busy, featureless main road. This was by far the most hassle free bus journey we’ve ever made with our bikes, which were safely stowed in the hold without the need for packaging or removal of wheels.

Cycling around the Angkor complex of temples was pure delight.

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Ta Prohm, the Tomb Raider temple

It’s a vast area, a city that boasted a population of around 1 million people at a time when London was a small town of 50,000. Most of them were engaged in building ever grander temples for each successive Khmer God King as they switched from Hinduism to Buddhism and back again.

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Apsaras, female dancing spirits

The gateway to Angkor is 8km outside Siem Reap so a tour of a few temples adds up to a proper bike ride of around 50km each day.

We saved the best until last. Angkor Wat at dawn. It was genuinely a spine-tingling moment to emerge through the outer gates and see the lotus-bud towers lit from behind by the sun of a new day.

As was ascending the precipitous steps to reach the kingdom of the gods.

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After 600 years, the empire of Angkar fell into decline partly as a result of over-population and deforestation. A lesson for us all today perhaps?

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As we cycled away from Angkor Wat towards Stung Treng, there were many quirky things we enjoyed about rural Cambodia … such as the hawkers on motor scooters and the petrol in plastic bottles,

Here are a few more:

Every house is a shop but it’s not a shop as you know it. Customers pull up outside on their motor scooters and shout their demands to the shopkeeper. There’s no browsing and you get a very odd look if you try to go inside!

Bright coloured pyjamas are all day wear for many rural Cambodian women.

Wooden houses are built on stilts, not so much for risk of flooding but to provide a nice shady area to swing in a hammock in the heat of the day.

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Baguettes are everywhere … a legacy from the French colonialists.

Instant coffee is only available as pre-mixed ‘3 in 1’ with milk powder and sugar. Yuk!

It’s another world … isn’t it!

Clare and Andy

Meandering through the Mekong

Cycling in Vietnam is quite different to the other countries we’ve pedalled through. It’s much busier … with millions of motor scooters buzzing in all directions.

Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as most people still call it) is Scooter City. There are 8 million scooters for 14 million people! They’re used as family vehicles, often carrying four people from three generations … everyone wearing helmets except for young children!

And they’re the best way to get around narrow village roads in the countryside.

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Traffic jam, Saigon style

Surprised and a little horrified to hear we were cycling around Vietnam, some friendly young people we met in Saigon insisted that we learn the local rules of the road.  Size matters, they said. Buses and trucks are the top dogs they said. Bicycles are right at the bottom so you must know what to do.

The golden rule is to keep your speed and direction constant, so that everyone else knows roughly where you’re going.

Never stop. Never hesitate. Never turn suddenly.

Always keep moving.

And there are more …

Traffic lights and roadsigns are only suggestions.

Don’t bother looking when you pull out of a parking space or turn onto a busy road.

Take every opportunity to overtake – even if there’s no space, even if you’re only 20 metres from your destination.

Honk your horn a lot. It’s then up to the vehicle in front of you to get out of the way.

If you’re on the wrong side of the road it’s always your right of way. You can stay next to the kerb where it’s nice and safe.

Always cut a corner, especially at a busy junction.

When crossing the road, simply walk out into the traffic and let it move around you.

It’s up to you to get out of the way if something big comes anywhere near you. Especially if you’re stupid enough to be on transport as old-fashioned as a bicycle!

But if you do see two crazy foreigners on bikes, always shout out a cheery hello!

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It was good advice. When you get used to the rules, being surrounded by buzzing scooters becomes surprisingly good fun. A bit like being on a busy ski slope. Or the dodgems at a fairground.

And we were lucky. It was the Lunar New Year (Tet) holiday, so the traffic was much lighter than normal.

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We’ve enjoyed getting to know a few Tet traditions, starting with flowers, lots and lots of them.

We’d barely got going before we came across a huge flower market in a town called Tan An. It was a colourful and busy scene, everyone piling impossible quantities of flowers onto their scooters as gifts for their families. All in red, orange and yellow to bring luck, joy and prosperity for the year ahead.

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Every few kilometres we cycled past stallholders selling gift hampers of special New Year food and huge crates of beer. And outside each house stood offerings of five different fruits (one for each of the five elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth) bringing ‘harmony to the universe’.

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A typical Tet offering

Then as the party got going in the afternoon, the karaoke systems were cranked up with drunken love songs competing with each other from amongst the coconut groves. Apparently they only work properly at maximum volume!

As a smiley lady said to us … “it’s nice for you to be in Vietnam at this time … everybody happy!”

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We were a bit surprised to be peddling through coconut groves rather than paddy fields. From Tan An, we cycled to Ben Tre and then onto a small village called Ap Don, resting both nights in homestays.

It was blazing hot, with the sun especially fierce in the middle of the day. Mad dogs and English cyclists out in the midday sun!

4FD9A2E9-8E4D-4FFA-9566-734722CF8278Taking back roads from Ap Don towards Can Tho, we suddenly emerged into a picture perfect carpet of rice that stretched towards the horizon. Fringed by palm tress it was a tapestry of every shade of green.

This was the Mekong Delta we’d come to see.

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Following the back roads is something of a navigational challenge, as several of the paths are not marked on Google maps nor on our trusty ViewRanger. After some debate, we decided to follow them anyway … as long as they were paved and heading in roughly the right direction.

It was a somewhat risky approach but amazingly, it paid off. Each time, we managed to get to the next bridge or the next road that was marked on our map.

The surface became a bit rough at times. But it was good to get away from the scooters. And all the kids were so surprised to see us, they would often charge out of their houses just to shout “Hellooooo” or  “How are yooouuu?”  Their enthusiasm was infectious and uplifting.

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Everyday life on the Mekong

Meandering through the Mekong Delta took us across lots of little bridges. And one old ferry that shuffled across a muddy tributary.

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Monks using the ferry

We also braved four huge, daunting bridges across the wide rivers that drain the Mekong, each 2 to 3 kilometres long.

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The bridge at Can Tho

Our last leg across the delta turned out to be over 120km on a busy road, so we chickened out and took the bus. This worked out fairly well, although it was not without the sort of challenges we’re now learning to expect when we try and load our bikes on buses during a busy holiday.

It doesn’t matter how many times you check that the bikes will be OK on the phone. It’s the staff at the bus station that make the call. At first they refused to let us board, but eventually relented and let us change our tickets to a bigger bus … departing 3 hours later.

In Châu Doc we rode out to Nui Sam (Sam Mountain), a granite outcrop some 284m high and full of pagodas and monasteries. As they zoomed by on their scooters, everyone else thought it was hilarious to see us struggling up the 10-12 degree climb.

But the views at the top were well worth the sweat.

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View from Sam Mountain

We’re now in Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia, having cheated again by taking a boat all the way from Châu Doc up the Mekong River. This turned out to be a lovely trip … boats are definitely our favourite alternative transport!

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Overall, our journey through the Mekong Delta was not quite what we’d imagined … meandering through a gentle landscape of rice paddies and waterways.

It is much nosier and much busier … with those pesky motor scooters buzzing past us most of the time. Each road or path is lined with houses and Vietnamese flags. People are everywhere.

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But it’s the people who have made it such a wonderful experience. Smiles and laughter all the way as they enjoyed their holiday. And each one greeting us with a few words of perfect Queen’s English.

Not Hi or How yer doing?

but Hello, how are you?

And our favourite … “It’s very nice to meet you!

Well, it was very nice to meet you too.

Clare and Andy

If you’d like to see a video of one days ride through the Mekong, we have posted it on our Facebook and Instagram pages together with some other photos. 

Use the links underneath the main menu on this blog.  Or go to Facebook/Instagram and search for avoidingpotholes.