Traveller stories: Vietnam to Laos by bike

Taking in stunning views from above | Sandra Hopkins
Taking in stunning views from above | Sandra Hopkins

Cycling close to 500km, it was 10 days of encountering locals, soaking in the tranquillity of the countryside and immersing in the enchanting village life of Laotians. Getting there by bike added to a fun and rewarding experience, but it did prove to be strenuous at times. (Thankfully a support vehicle was nearby which we used to our advantage!)

Here are my day-to-day accounts from my two-wheel adventure from Hanoi to Luang Prabang.

Day 1: Hanoi, Vietnam – a welcoming dinner

After a short briefing with our World Expeditions tour guide, Hang, we left for dinner in the home of a local family who lived near the central rail station in an area once heavily bombed during the war. The food was excellent and copious – spring rolls, cha ca fish (a Hanoi speciality), tofu, fried chicken, and something a bit like dolmades, as well as some home brewed rice spirit.

Our host clearly loved entertaining visitors (our guide translated), where they played their homemade instruments and sang for us. It was a real treat, and a taste of things to come.

Cyclists geared up and ready to set off from Hanoi to remote villages |  <i>Sandra Hopkins</i>

Day 2: Hanoi to Ba Vi National Park – leaving the bustling city behind

We were fitted with our mountain bikes with its 27 gears and set off at a fast pace following Hang along the dyke road through a populated area of Hanoi. Not surprisingly, we had two close calls – one where we were almost side swiped by a motorbike coming from a side street, and another where one of the cyclists knocked a bamboo tray of food out of the hands of a woman walking out of a doorway without looking.

In no time at all, we left the busy part of the city behind and continued towards the west on the main road. We passed through a village known as a carpenters’ village. It seemed quite flat, but as we were going mostly along the banks of the Red River, it was a continuous and gentle incline. It was so nice to be outside Hanoi, but the landscape was flat and not very inspiring. The villages were interesting though.

We stopped for lunch in a village café, enjoying noodles and vegetables. Kristen, my fellow traveller, demonstrated her adeptness at communicating with locals and very soon had the owner of the restaurant ready to marry her off to a local! The owner’s late husband had served during the war and had been absent for 10 years as he was exposed to agent Orange, the aftereffects of which were evident in one of her four sons.

We continued the almost flat road for approximately 55 kilometres until we reached a national park. Though it was a pretty steep climb!

It was five kilometres up to head to our accommodation located inside the park, but we managed about one and a half kilometres before putting our bikes on the truck and driving up the rest of the way. The Ba Vi Resort (a popular pick for the locals in the wet season) was set in a backdrop of beautiful trees, but the resort’s French/Soviet style was dated.

Day 3: Ba Vi to Da Bia – a scenic reservoir and 60km of hard biking

We drove down the hill and along a busy road to the river, where the truck and van let us set of on our own two wheels along the river for about 20 kilometres, before hopping on a little long boat to cross the river. We climbed from the boat landing up to a village and then continued our way – mostly uphill. It proved to be a very hard day with lots of hills and we were not well prepared for them, but the truck and van were there to support us, and we took advantage.

Biking around a reservoir that reminded us of Marlborough Sounds in New Zealand, but with no tourists or tourist facilities, I felt that we were truly isolated and remote. It was lovely to pass friendly villagers with young ones greeting, ‘Hello’. The biking was hard but scenic.

Enjoying scenic water views in isolated parts of Da Bia |  <i>Sandra Hopkins</i>

After about 60 kilometres of hard biking, everyone got in the van as we were at least 20 kilometres away from our night’s accommodation, a home stay next to a huge reservoir. Here, we were amongst the Muang people and stayed in a typical Muang house – wooden, very open, on stilts with living downstairs and sleeping upstairs. Dinner was cooked by the family and consisted of a variety of dishes – fish (deep fried and overcooked), tofu, chicken pieces, vegetables, French fries, squash and rice.

Staying at a traditional Muong house by a host family |  <i>Sandra Hopkins</i>

The home stay was in a lovely location, but the sleeping floor upstairs was a little cramped. With another tour group, approximately 13 people slept in a room, with mattresses laid on the floor under mosquito nets. Roosters seemed to crow all night, and of course there were snorers.

Day 4: Da Bia to Pu Luong – a valley carpeted in rice fields

We started the day with an hour’s transfer in a long boat to the other side of the reservoir, enjoying the stunning scenery of layered hills, which looked blue in the hazy light and passed an island where locals were harvesting tapioca.

Boat transfer across the river to cycle Laos' backroads |  <i>Sandra Hopkins</i>

After the boat ride, we climbed up and up as we left the reservoir behind. We reached the top of the hill near a busy town and intersection, from there we headed downhill for about four kilometres along a busy road before turning off into a paradise of limestone karsts, rice paddies, and tidy villages of wooden houses on stilts.

We were led by Hang along small country roads, through villages and rice paddy borders, and passed communal clothes washing and bathing areas.

We stopped at a wooden house and Hang organised for us to be invited in. Our host was a 91-year-old woman who sat ably on the floor. Her teeth were lacquered black, but her eyes were bright, and she seemed alert.

Her home where she lives with her husband, daughter and grandchildren had a big room upstairs for sleeping and a kitchen area to the side with an open fireplace for cooking, but no running water inside nor a fridge. There were two TVs in the big living/sleeping area though.

After our village and rice paddy detour, we arrived at Mai Chau. Cottages were hemmed in the hills, with many shops selling souvenirs and restaurants aplenty – and tourists.
We stopped at a bar with a lookout over the karsts and rice paddies and had drinks – a beer and a mango and papaya smoothie (with a taste of condensed milk).

Then we were off again. Initially we went on a cross country track past some cows, hotels under construction and a cement works, however we then got back onto a very muddy country road where there was some road repairs and trucks. We knew the last part of the day was a long climb, so as soon as an ascent started, we decided to stop biking and take the van. It was indeed a long climb and very high.

At the top, we travelled on our bikes again for a great descent through villages to our remote resort for the night, part way down the mountain.

Our accommodation had a dining area – all open, a swimming pool and numerous cabins for sleeping. It also had an extraordinary view of the mountain hills. Our cabin was like the home stay – upstairs in a wooden house on stilts and a common sleeping room, but much more spacious with curtain dividers and the toilets and showers were closer to our accommodation and more numerous (four toilets and four showers). The design of the bathrooms and the cleanliness was impressive. After showering and washing some clothes, we had a drink with Hang. It seemed strange and was sad that our Vietnam leg of the tour was almost finished.

Day 5: Pu Luong to Vieng Xai, Laos – the hidden route through scenic landscapes

After a reasonable night’s sleep – no roosters but a bit of snoring – we got up for our last day of cycling in Vietnam, taking off with speed. We had 20 kilometres to do for the day and Hang was under pressure to get us to the border by midday.

The first part, of about seven kilometres, was downhill through magical sceneries of villages and layers of karsts above a mist. Such a pity to go so fast. The remainder of the journey was relatively flat but fast – we must have been doing about 25 kilometres per hour.

Saying our goodbyes to our truck driver, who had been super helpful and cheerful, we hopped in the van for the border.

The drive is about 2 hours, but it took longer due to some roadworks. Once we made it to the immigration border, we had our passports stamped and bid adieu to Hang and our van driver. Hang is a terrific guide and it was sad to say thanks and goodbye.

We then crossed no man’s land – a long walk over a bridge with about 200 metres on each side. I was worried that the Laotian immigration wouldn’t be open, and we would be stuck in no man’s land, but an official came running across to the office when we appeared and started the process of organising our visas on arrival. This took about 15-20 minutes, after the payment of $36 USD each – one dollar more than anticipated as it was the weekend.

We met our guide, Lee and driver, Mr Sit and made our way to Vieng Xai on the worst road I’ve ever experienced. We were remote – almost no villages, but the road was so rough due to lots of landslides.

That night we went to dinner at the local Indian restaurant run by a Bengali man and his wife. The food was excellent and enjoyed a nice change from noodles, eggs and fried rice. We had aubergine curry, fish curry and dahl, topped with an excellent cardamom rice pudding dessert.

The owners had been in Laos for 10 years after his mining job finished, running the restaurant in an old wooden shack. The husband’s eyes lit up when I asked about the Indian cricket team currently playing in Australia. I was overwhelmed at their bravery and persistence. It was sad to leave Vietnam and the Vietnamese team, but we were ready for our Laotian adventure.

Day 6: Vieng Xai to Sam Nuea – exploring Cave City

We toured the caves used by the Pathet Lao (The red army of Laos) during the bombing by the Americans. It was a great tour, highly informative and distressing at the same time. More bombs were dropped on Laos by the Americans than were dropped during the Second World War! The Laotians called it the secret war. Today still, one Laotian dies per day from unexploded ordnances.

Cave tour in Vieng Xai |  <i>Sandra Hopkins</i>

We visited three caves: that of the Red Prince, that of the army commander and future prime minister, and the infantry cave. The last one was enormous, with three big bomb craters outside. The first two had lovely gardens with lots of begonias, frangipanis and fig trees.

After our tour, we got fitted for our bikes and took off. Our first day of biking in Laos was a ‘rest day’, so we had only 35 kilometres to do, but it was hard biking. We got to our destination early afternoon and had lunch in a cafe near the bridge. The hotel was nice – quite new, lots of shiny tiles and interesting decor.

I spent the afternoon exploring the area, walking through the market, and went across a rickety pedestrian bridge to find an ATM and the Vietnamese restaurant which had been recommended. More fried rice and two big bottles of beer came to approximately $10.

Day 7:  Sam Nuea to Muang Hiem – entering Laos’ ethnically diverse area

Post-breakfast – which was eggs (oh yes, more eggs), a bit of cheese, 3- in-1 coffee, bread rolls and bananas – we had a quick tour of the market. Dead rats and squirrels for sale.

Local village markets in Laos |  <i>Sandra Hopkins</i>

We had a huge distance to cover this day – mostly by driving. The biking was challenging, very mountainous but beautiful. The best part was passing through villages and all the children waving and saying ‘sabadee’.

We stopped for lunch on the side of the road at the top of a pass, sitting on the ground and having noodles, salad with a coconut milk sauce and barbequed eggplants. The team ate buffalo bits (tripe and bones bits). They travelled with their own rice cooker, and like all Laotians loved sticky rice.

Lunch stop en route to Muang Hiem |  <i>Sandra Hopkins</i>

We arrived in our guest house about 5pm and it was away from the main street and overlooking some fields. It was okay, but it had the usual dodgy plumbing of Southeast Asia where some of the waste from the sink went onto the floor.

Across the road we had dinner – more fried rice, eggs and beer. The owner’s children were in a corner watching nursery rhymes in English including ‘Jingle Bells’. We sang along and it was a nice reminder of Christmas back home.

Day 8: Muang Hiem to Muang Viengkham – local encounters

This was another long day of biking and long-distance driving. We passed more mountains, villagers, buffalo, cows and villages. We were getting tired. The scenery was still special though and the villages remote and poor.

The villagers were fascinated by our bikes, especially Kristen’s as she uses cleats.

After a lot of hard biking, we got in the van to finish the distance to the night’s accommodation on rough road. We arrived at a nice, clean guesthouse with a decent bathroom guesthouse at about 5pm. We had dinner cooked by the guesthouse owner, a very elegant Laotian woman. The food was good, but it was the usual noodles and eggs – and Laotian beer.

Day 9: Muang Viengkham to Nong Khiaw – the best mountain scenery and a luxurious night’s stay

We started our day with lovely breakfast on the terrace outside our rooms, enjoying fruit, green soybean cakes and rice flour omelette with a sweet sauce.
I have to say, today had the best scenery of the trip, but also had the longest climb of about 30 kilometres. We set out thinking that we would do as much as possible after all we had done well in the hill climbs the previous day.

We amazingly managed 25 kilometres. I was so pleased and wish I’d persisted and finished it.

Just before we finished, I had two little boys on their way home from school at lunchtime running up the hill beside me and at one stage pushing me by hitting my back wheel.

Taking a break while chatting with the locals |  <i>Sandra Hopkins</i>

Lower on the mountains, we were among the Kmeu tribe. Higher up, we were back among Hmong people, who do not have windows in their houses due to the high altitude. Both tribal groups live in wooden houses on stilts.

Our lunch stop at Hmong had some interesting sights, including a young girl carrying a few dead rats on a string. There were some for sale in the shops too.

After lunch, we took off downhill and stopped at a spectacular lookout over the surrounding mountains.

Enjoying stunning vistas before heading into a small town in Laos |  <i>Sandra Hopkins</i>

As we got closer to our final destination for the night, Nong Khiaw, a popular tourist destination. The environment changed – more traffic, better houses and some swimming pools for tourists.

Driving up to our accommodation at the Viewpoint Hotel, World Expeditions certainly saved the best for last – we were in luxury! It was a new hotel with a spectacular vista of the river, town and mountainscapes. We enjoyed happy hour in town and went to an Indian restaurant, the Chennai, for thali. The local Lao Lao whiskey helped us walk easily up the hill to get to our hotel (or maybe we were just really fit after all the biking).

Day 10: Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang – the final day

We headed off for a 60-kilometre ride before lunch. My bum and hips hurt after the exertion of the previous day. The ride was simple though – down a valley, close to the river and undulating.

Taking in stunning views from above |  <i>Sandra Hopkins</i>

We had coffee in a café near the turn-off to the main road that goes between Laos and Vietnam. It was clear that we were back in civilisation with enormous trucks on the road.

After our 60kms, we stopped at a roadside restaurant and had some exceptional noodles – one that the team had bought at a market and some really spicy handmade pho. We then said goodbye to our truck driver and our bikes, and with Mr Sit and Lee, we continued to drive by the river, Nam Om towards the Mekong.

The road was a mess as the Chinese are building dams along the river, including near Mr Sit’s childhood home. Many houses and villages will be lost to the flooding.

We arrived at a weaving village, Ban Nayang, and went straight to our long boat to cross the Mekong to visit the Pak Ou cave (which means mouth of the river). The caves are interesting but the boat ride on the Mekong was magnificent, especially when it was close to sunset.

Mekong River crossing |  <i>Sandra Hopkins</i>

At Luang Prabang, we were driven to our accommodation and said our sad goodbyes to Mr Sit and Lee. What a magical journey and what a privilege to access villages and locals in remote Laos!

Words and photos by Sandra Hopkins who travelled on our Hanoi to Luang Prabang by Bike trip in December 2018. Follow more of Sandra’s recent travels at her blog.

cycling, vietnam, laos, bike adventures, southeast asia, pedalling, mountain biking, hanoi, luang prabang, countryside, remote cycling, homestays

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