Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

30 Nov 2013

A very hilly road out of Vietnam

Posted by Will

Foolishly I had left very little time to get out of Vietnam – I would have to make 500km in only 5 days to reach the border in the time allowed on my visa. Normally, this wouldn’t have bothered me too much but my Hanoian friends kept warning of the mountainous regions that lay ahead. Heeding their advice, I set off for Laos at 5am the following morning.

p1070056-800The first few hours went very well indeed. A light breeze blew in my favour, heavy traffic never materialised and a tasty bowl of pho soup awaited me at a quiet cafe a few dozen kilometers outside the city limits. Some local men called me over to drink ‘wine’ but after cautiously sniffing it I realized its true identity lay closer to paint stripper. I joined them anyway even though my watch showed the time at only a little after 8am. With a nasty taste in my mouth, I set off again intent on lengthening my headstart.

I cycled past spectacular limestone cliffs which looked much like the scenery at Ha Long Bay except now they rose from land instead of water. A few small villages were cast entirely in their jagged shadow at this early hour. They were the beginning of the mountains to come. As I had expected, the road began to slope upwards, gently at first as though to lull the ambitious cyclist into a false sense of security, only to turn a corner and reveal the true nature of the climb. As far as the eye could see, the road twisted and turned at a terrifying angle up the side of the mountain. Over the next few hours, I puffed and panted slowly upwards, realising in the most agonising way possible how much Hanoian food, drink and armchairs had stripped my physical fitness. The bike wobbled and creaked, my legs strained and trembled and my mind cursed the Vietnamese road builders who had decided this was an acceptable gradient.

p1070096-800The 10% incline turned out to be standard all the way to Laos. Several hours up followed by twenty minutes down, then an hour or two flat. Then the uphill would start again – that was the cycle until the border. Although I managed an impressive 135km on my first day, it became clear that to stay on schedule I would need to race all the way. The mountains slowed me down and sapped me so much that failing to make the day’s distance was always a possibility.

I raged internally at the indecent mountain conditions but with hindsight the circumstances were favourable in many ways. Traffic consisted mainly of harmless motorbikes and tough little kids making their way to school on bicycles, always shouting gleeful ‘hello’s. The road had also been built so that the views were always wide and unimpaired. Countless times I would soar down the right side of a mountain with kilometers of untouched forest beneath me. Up high I could see tiny villages in small clearings showing no sign of a road or electicity pylons connecting them to the outside world. I should be thankful for the road quality too. These Vietnamese road-builders, for all I cursed them, knew better than most of their Asian counterparts the secret formula for smooth asphalt.

p1070077-800Three days into the ride my legs, particularly my bum muscles, were fried to the limit. I could barely turn over in the tent without having to lever on my arms and even swinging my leg over the bike became painful. I took to massaging my legs (bum mainly) any time I took a break which alhough incredibly soothing must have looked very weird to any Vietnamese who happened to be watching at the time. Now, as I write, my legs are nearing the strength they had when first entering Hanoi and seem to be functioning properly. Hopefully they’ll be a match for notoriously hilly northern Laos.

The beautiful Vietnamese countryside deserved much more attention than the whirlwind tour I allowed it, but this was the price I paid for spending extra days in Hanoi. I drank several more ‘wine’ glasses but never had the time to interact properly. One night I was invited to sleep in the house of an eager local man who managed to communicate that rice and wine was on offer if only I would accept. At the time I had just finished setting up my tent, sleeping bag and stove and was minutes away from collapsing into a much-needed reverie offered by my iPod. I declined his offer – the thought of packing everything onto the bike again to go up to his house was too much to bear – and disappointment etched itself readily on his face as he retreated up the dusty path. The next day I felt bad for shutting myself away so readily, although I know at the time that’s all I had wanted to do. The bottom line is I should not be cycling so quickly.

p1070058-800Getting fit again isn’t all about the physical aspect – there’s the mental side too. I lost my temper quicker than usual on the first few days. A cracked section of usually perfect asphalt would have me shouting in frustration, the sign of another hill to come brought bitter complaints and I even once reproached the sun for shining too hot on my face. I’m happy to say I have now reigned in my desire to curse everything but myself.

My next checkpoint, Chiang Mai, grows ever closer. Despite getting back into the swing of cycling, I’m looking forward to opening another headquarters in Thailand, partly so I can push forward a few projects I’m keen to work on, partly so I can meet other travellers. Although I had a great time in Hanoi, I missed out completely on the backpacker scene. I anticipate getting heavily involved. First though, the quieter, less-populated and supposedly superlative Laos awaits.

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9 Comments already on “A very hilly road out of Vietnam”
  1. 7:56 ampermalink
    30 Nov 2013


    Hope you have made it up and over those pesky Laos mountains. My legs ache just thinking about it. Great post as always. Not much further to Chiang Mai !!! x

    • Will

      1:57 pmpermalink
      03 Dec 2013


      Only 300km from Chiang Mai! I am planning an epic entry photo … I just hope there’s a ‘Chiang Mai’ sign for me to pose with.

  2. 9:19 ampermalink
    30 Nov 2013


    You are envied in Bristol.


    • Will

      1:56 pmpermalink
      03 Dec 2013


      big k, you make it sound like something’s missing in Bristol, how’s it going? Bees still producing thick and fast?

  3. 5:29 pmpermalink
    01 Dec 2013


    Leon here (at the M-spot Hanoi coffee shop where we watched 7 Psychopaths together). It took me some time to find your blog, but everything you wrote here is truly amazing and I enjoy reading your journey a lot. Good luck on your trip and always keep your spirit up ;)

    • Will

      1:59 pmpermalink
      03 Dec 2013


      Thanks Leon – very encouraging words indeed! Perhaps we’ll watch a less grizzly movie on the projector screen next time … maybe Man U beating Arsenal again later in the season!

      I’m telling everyone I can about the wonders of Hanoi (and of course M-Spot) – I hope to return soon.

  4. 12:30 pmpermalink
    03 Dec 2013


    Today I finished a book ,Around the World in 80 Days.It’s amazing and a little bit childish.I enjoy it very much, like your website.This book reminds me of you. Looking through your trip,I have somethings to ask.1,You’ve teaveled a lot,is there anything such as emotions,your personality. the cognition of the world and so on…
    2,If your bike broken down,how did you deal with it?
    3,What you wanna do when you come back home?(Find a nice job?,Will you teavel again?)
    If you do not want to answer those questions,it’s ok!.
    There is a japanese,called (いしだ ゆうすけ)Yusuke Ishida.He finished around the world by bike.It took him 7.5 years.He said:And people meet, and they create memories, is a kind of wealth.hah I think you must be a very rich man…
    best wishes

    • Will

      2:06 pmpermalink
      03 Dec 2013


      Hey Chen, of course I want to answer your questions. I’m not sure what you mean by question number 1 though.
      Question 2: I carry some spare tools and mechanical parts in my bike bags, but really I don’t know how to use half of them. I rely on good luck and nice people around me to help me out when my bike breaks down. In Asia particularly, a man with the right tool is never far away! For example, in China and Vietnam I often needed my brakes tightening but didn’t have the right-sized spanner, but hey, no problem, because there was always a shop around the corner that did! Bike enthusiasts I have stayed with on websites like Couchsurfing and Warmshowers have also helped to fix my bike sometimes.
      Question 3: That is a good question. I try not to think about that question too much because if I did I think it would impede my current enjoyment. However, I do think about it. I will have to find a job, I suppose, but maybe it won’t be in the United Kingdom. I have visited so many places I would love to stay for a longer time, and met people I would like to stay with for longer too, so perhaps I’ll get a job in another country. Who knows when I will stop though!

      ps. is that the Japanese guy who rode without a saddle – just a bike pole sticking, presumably, up his rear-end?

      • 2:37 ampermalink
        04 Dec 2013


        Thanks for your good anwers.I’m sorry to impede your enjoyment.Who cares job?Teavel is a good job,though there is no incoom.
        The first question I mean is there anything in you changed? I think so,maybe you not noticed.You may stronger than before in spirit.(may not in body.hah)
        Ps. That japanese took a lot of stuff like you,I’d like to read some book about him. Support you.