Vietnam Laos Cycle
By Ben Groundwater
The looks on the locals’ faces say it all. What are these people doing? Why would rich Westerners, the lucky few who have all the money in the world, who have all the freedom to travel in whichever way they please, be travelling by bike? Why would they be tackling these steep hills and these sticky, sultry valleys under their own steam when they could be driving a car?
It’s a fair point. I can’t say I haven’t wondered it a few times myself as I’ve strained to get to the top of a rise, as rivers of sweat have cascaded off me like one of the tropical deluges we’ve seen gathering on the horizon, as I’ve puffed and panted to reach yet another goal.
Why do this? Why ride a bike from Hanoi to Luang Prabang? Why use a form of transport that around here is a necessity rather than a pleasure when it could all be so different?
The answer, obviously, is in the experience. It’s in the challenge. It’s in the scent of wood smoke and spice that you catch on your ride, in the sight of rice paddies and ramshackle houses that glide by. It’s in the slow passage of time that a journey on a bike demands.
This is how you see South-East Asia. And I mean, really see it. Feel it. Taste it. A bicycle offers a window into this world that no other form of transport can. It sets you at the same pace as the lives being lived around you. It brings waves from farmers, smiles from kids.
It also takes you far from the path most trodden. The route from Hanoi to Luang Prabang begins in the big city, in the madness of the Vietnamese capital, but the high rises and the heavy traffic very quickly disappear, and what’s left is rural South-East Asia, charming and friendly and quiet.
Our first day of pedalling is a gentle one, with no hills to worry about, not too much traffic to be a concern. With the safety net of a support vehicle behind us, our modest peloton sets off at an easy pace, taking in the scenery, enjoying stretching our legs, getting the feel for the bikes, a feel for the road. We cruise through villages. We roll past farms.
These bikes might seem strange to the locals, but this journey isn’t unique. There are actually plenty of cycling tours in South-East Asia, and indeed in the rest of the world. This is a hugely popular way to get around for travellers of all ages, a way to combine fitness with fun, to add a new element to the travel experience.
Our journey is being managed by World Expeditions, which means the route is planned out, the accommodation is booked, the food and water is supplied and the support vehicle is in place. All we have to do is ride. And we do.
Vietnam is a breeze. The few days it takes us to pedal west to the Laos border are pleasant and flat, with frequent stops for iced coffees, with plenty of time to catch our breath and take in the scenery.
There are no fancy hotels out here. Most nights we’re in modest guesthouses, spending muggy evenings wandering small towns. Later in the trip things will become even more rustic, when we spend a few nights off the grid in a Lao village called Muong Ngoi.
That, however, is over the hill. Over plenty of hills. No sooner have we crossed the border at Na Meo, earning a few raised eyebrows from bored guards, we hit a set of mountains known affectionately as the “Lao Alps”, and things get serious. This is no longer a gentle pedal but a sweaty slog, with powerful climbs interspersed with blissful downhill glides.
We stop overnight in Vieng Xai, a dusty village that was once the headquarters of the feared Pathet Laos. We power up more hills and coast through more valleys before hitching a ride in the support vehicle to Sam Nuea, deep into rural Laos.
There’s a beautiful idle to life here, with work days dictated by the sun, deep pleasure taken over meals of sticky rice and vegetables, and the almost indescribable magnificence of a cold Beerlao at the end of a long day. We rest weary limbs at night, telling yarns in open-air restaurants, leaning back in plastic chairs and reliving the ride.
We spend a rest day in a rural village with no phone reception or wifi, just mattresses on the floor of a wooden hut, dining with the local chief. And then, finally, we jump back astride those bikes and make our triumphant way into Luang Prabang, Laos’s cultural capital, where a fancy hotel and a good meal awaits.
This is the big city, comparatively, but the looks from the people by the side of the road don’t change. Confusion reigns at the sight of our puffing, Lycra-clad peloton. We’re a strange sight. But we’re also pretty pleased.