The most striking aspect of Hanoi is its insane traffic. The Vietnamese capital seems to have its own road rules, or maybe it simply doesn’t have any. The moped is the primary mode of transport and millions of them drive through the narrow streets of the city, swerving around cars and pedestrians, without a worry in the world.

There are plenty of traffic-lights and stop signs there, but it seems that no-one ever bothered explaining to the Vietnamese what their primary purpose is. Decoration maybe? Crossing the road for the first time was an unnerving experience. The traffic was so dense that if we had waited for an opening we’d still be there right now. You simply have to go for it, at a nice steady pace and the mopeds will adjust their trajectory and go around you! It was certainly chaotic, but it was a harmonious chaos. During the time we spent in Hanoi we saw some of the most insane manoeuvres, some of which would most definitely have caused some serious road-rage in other parts of the world, but no-one ever seemed to care and not once did we see an accident!

Vietnam Crazy traffic in Hanoi

There isn’t much to see or do in Hanoi, and that’s precisely why we liked it there. We could just explore the different parts of city, looking for new bars or restaurants every day, without that feeling that we HAD tourist attractions to visit. The only time we broke off our routine was for an amazing three-day organised trip to Halong Bay, north-east of Hanoi. We went there together with Nicola, a friend of Angela from university, and her boyfriend Bastien, who happened to be in Hanoi at the same time as us. The boat cruise was comfortable and relaxed and the thousands of limestone cliffs sticking out from the sea all around us offered stunning views. It was also nice, for once, to have everything organised for us, without having to worry about finding a place to eat or sleep every day. Two weeks after arriving in Hanoi we were joined by my friends Paddy, who had decided to come for a cycle holiday. The plan was to ride together to Luang Prabang in two weeks, which meant that there was no time to waste. Paddy arrived around lunchtime and we hit the road as soon as his bike was assembled and his panniers packed. Joining us was Reto, a lone Swiss cyclist who Angela and I had bumped into while walking around the streets of Hanoi and who felt like having some companions for a change. Cycling out of Hanoi could have been another stressful business, but once you come to terms with the fact that you can pretty much do anything you want on the road it can actually be fun! When in Rome… Unless of course some impatient Vietnamese on his moped kicks your front panniers to get you out of the way…

Vietnam Entering Halong Bay

Vietnam Sunset in Halong Bay

Vietnam Bastien swimming in Halong Bay

The first part of the cycle towards Laos was fairly flat but soon high limestone cliff started appearing around us. It made for a beautiful cycling (and Paddy was already loving it), but the first tough hills left Ange and I feeling exhausted! To our defence we were pretty unfit after almost a full month off the bikes… This meant that we cycled slightly shorter distances than first planned and one night ended up stranded in a little village at dusk with no accommodation options… Luckily a petrol station attendant took pity on us and let the four of us sleep in a spare room inside the station. Our slow pace was also hindering Reto, who was on a much tighter schedule than us, so it didn’t come as a surprise when he told us one morning that we was going to go ahead on his own. We actually found out later that he covered in one day the same distance that we cycled in two! All in all Northern Vietnam offered some beautiful cycling, especially the mountainous area around Mai Chau, but as many cyclists who have travelled around the country will tell you, the constant beeping and honking from cars and trucks eventually becomes very tiring and nerve-wracking…

Vietnam Limestone cliffs in Northern Vietnam

Vietnam Rice fields near Mai Chau

Vietnam Local villager carrying bamboo in Mai Chau

What a relief it was therefore when we crossed the Vietnam-Laos border in Na Meo. Once on the Laos side it suddenly became peaceful and quiet and we could relax a bit as we had the whole road to ourselves. We were greeted right away by “sabaidee” calls from children riding their bikes to school or jumping out of their small wooden houses and sticking their hands out for high-fives. The beginning of the road in Laos was similar to Vietnam, with beautiful cycling through a landscape of rice paddies and limestone cliffs all the way to the little city of Vieng Xai. After visiting some the 400 caves that were used by the Northern Laos communist people to hide from US bombs during the Indochina War, Paddy and I got back on our bikes and headed towards Sam Neua, while Angela waited in Vieng Xai for a bus ride. Unfortunately a month off the bikes hadn’t helped her knees much and after only a few days of cycling she was experiencing pains again. We thought it would be wiser in the long term if she didn’t tackle too many hills, especially if she wanted to make it all the way down to Singapore! She would therefore hop on and off buses or try to hitch lifts to the next major town or city, where she would wait for Paddy and me to show up. Past Vieng Xai the cycling became really tough. After having cycled through the high mountains of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, I felt that the hardest was behind us and the low mountains of Northern Laos didn’t seem so hard… Come on, the highest pass we’d have to cycle culminated around 1500m. Pfffff, piece of cake! How wrong I was. Crossing Northern Laos ended up being some of the most challenging cycling of the trip. The succession of steep climbs (up to 16%) combined with the heat and humidity really drained the energy out of us every day. On top of that, the widow-makers, as a wise Canadian friend of mine would call those tough hills, were surrounded by thick jungle bush, meaning that you could never see more than 500m ahead of you. We’d be struggling up a steep hill, typically thinking to ourselves: “The top must be around that next bend, I can feel it, I’ve been going uphill for almost 45min now, it must be over soon, there we go I’m nearly there, this is it, yes, downhill here we c… Oh bugger…” The road around the bend would of course continue going up and generally with a harder gradient. At that point we would drop our heads down, a few tears of despair mixing with the drips of sweat, and would carry on pushing on the pedals until the next bend came…

Laos Kids on their way to school in Laos

Laos Countryside life in Northen Laos

Laos Northern Laos landscape

Having sent all our camping equipment from Hanoi to Australia, we were a fair bit lighter than in Central Asia but it also meant that we had to rely on hotels and guesthouses for accommodation, and these are not always a common sight in the northern and less touristy parts of Laos. On one occasion Paddy and I had planned to finish the day in a town that looked rather big and developed on our map. It was getting dark as we approached it and we soon realised that it was nothing more than a tiny village, without even a shop in sight. As the entire living population gathered around us, including a couple of scruffy-looking dogs, the village cow and a bare-chested old woman, we tried to explain that we were looking for somewhere to spend the night, hinting that we’d be happy to sleep on someone’s floor. No-one seemed willing or interested to put up with us, but we were told that there was a hotel in the next town. By then it was pitch-black and neither Paddy nor I felt like cycling in the dark, especially considering the next town was 17km away and on the other side of another steep hill. After some bargaining we managed to convince one of the only truck-owners in the village to give us a lift there. Of course by the time we arrived his price had doubled and we had to start the bartering process all over again. Definitely the last thing you want to do when you are tired and smelly at the end of a day of cycling. On another occasion, Pak Xeng, a town we had planned to stay at in the evening and which was mentioned on our map and in our guide book, didn’t even exist! This time we decided to carry on cycling in the dark, since the road was in a good condition and it was mainly downhill. As we approached the next town we both secretly prayed that we would find somewhere to stay, and our wishes came true when we spotted the sign for a guesthouse by the side of the road. After a quick shower we walked through the streets in search of a restaurant. It was still quite early and lively, but there didn’t seem to be anywhere we could eat. Eventually we asked a shop-keeper if she could point us to a restaurant. She led us out of her shop and knocked on the door of the next-door building. A hand-written sign next to the entrance said “noddle soup” in small letters. No wonder we hadn’t been able to spot it. After a few seconds an old lady, wearing nothing but a skirt and a bra, opened the door and welcomed us inside. We sat down at a small table in what seemed to be the main living room and started talking to the lady’s husband, who spoke some French. Soon we were served a delicious spicy noodle soup, which we ate while watching very cheesy Thai soap-operas on TV. A day to remember!

Laos Happy kids shouting and jumping as we cycle past in Northern Laos

Laos Hills all around!

Laos Corn cobs drying by the side of the road

The cycling might have been hard, but there was plenty to keep us upbeat. Whenever there was an opening in the bush by the side of the road we were rewarded with stunning views of the mountainous landscape. We crossed many hill-tribe villages on the way, some of them seemingly abandoned, some of them full of life and buzzing with kids running around naked and shouting at us in excitement. We saw corn and red chillies drying by the side of the roads, small pigs running around freely, little food stalls where locals came to meet and eat, villagers washing in the rivers or at the villages’ water pumps… When cycling past school, a game between Paddy and I was to see how long it would take for a kid in the playground or inside a classroom to spot us and start shouting and jumping up and down: generally about two seconds and even less than that for the hysteria to spread to the whole school. These are only but a few classic moments that have made this cycling trip so amazing and interesting. We felt very privileged to be on our bikes, so close to the action and the culture, and felt rather sorry for the “normal” travellers who miss out on the rural life when travelling in minivans or buses.

Laos Young boys on their way to catch some fish

Laos Bamboo water-fountain along the road

Laos Chillies drying in the sun

Eventually we arrived in Nong Khiaw, a scenic little town on the Nam Ou River surrounded by high limestone cliffs. We met Angela at the entrance of town, looking somehow different… I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first, but something had definitely changed. Ah yes, there we go, her left hand and foot were all puffed-up and double their normal sizes… She had been bitten by an unidentified bug the morning before while hitch-hiking by the side of the road and now she could hardly put her foot in her flip-flop. Ha ha, good old Angela, always there to entertain us at the end of a long day of riding. We all really likeed Nong Khiaw. It had a nice relaxed vibe, nice bungalows by the river and plenty of good and cheap restaurants, yet still just about off the radar and therefore not over-packed with tourists. We spent a day there before catching a boat down the Nam Ou and Mekong rivers. After a scenic but very long and not so confortable boat journey we finally arrived in Luang Prabang, Paddy’s final destination. We had made it in time and even had a day and a half to spare before he had to catch his flight back to Hanoi. We spent that time wisely, mainly gorging ourselves on crepes and fruit-shakes, and occasionally doing some sight-seeing. The nice easy-going pace of the city suited itself perfectly for lazy strolls around the different sights and the night market offered a great choice of souvenirs. On Paddy’s last day we even had enough time to visit a Buddhist temple, an elephant resort and swim at the Tat Sae waterfalls…

Laos Boat ride from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang

Laos Boat ride from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang

LaosStatues inside the Wat Xieng Thong Buddhist temple in Luang Prabang

Those two weeks cycling with Paddy went by in no time. Even though we were on a tight schedule and couldn’t always hang around in some of the nice areas that we passed through, Angela and I really enjoyed Paddy’s company. And even though he had to carry some of our equipment and always had to wait for our slow bums at the top of every climb, we both hope that he enjoyed his two-week holiday with us too. Paddy my friend, your positive attitude, good humour and great cooking tips have been a blessing. Both Angela and I were truly sad when you left us!

See more Vietnam and Laos photos here and here!