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Ian Hibell in SE Asia 2006 PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

EMAILS FROM IAN HIBELL IN SE ASIA 2006

The following emails have come in from Ian Hibell, the UK's most accomplished long-distance touring cyclist. He is currently cycling alone, from Bangkok, east into and across Cambodia, north through Vietnam, west into Laos, back into northern Vietnam and north again into China. If time is available, he would like to complete the journey in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, which he passed through on his last ride from the North Sea to the Pacific Ocean. As he entered South-east Asia, Ian had already entered his eighth decade!

This image of Ian wIan_Hibell_in_Laos_MBT_JPeg.jpgas sent to us recently by fellow-cyclist, Jeff Holmes, and shows Ian in characteristic pose in Vang Vieng, Laos. Jeff met Ian in Laos and again in Hanoi.

Note, among other things, the short wheelbase of his touring bicycle, the absence of mudguards, the fairly narrow, high pressure tyres (Schwalbe Marathon), most of the luggage over the back wheel, 3 bottles and handlebars without the padding that softies like us prefer.

See the end of this article for a summary of Ian's Places and Distances in SE Asia, from Bangkok to Hanoi.

To read of Ian's journey onward journey through China, click:    Ian in China

Preamble by Barry Williamson

We first mIan_Hibell_(33).jpget Ian Hibell in October 2003 at the home of a mutual friend and well-known cyclist, Andrew Hague, in Breconshire where we spent a weekend together. On the Sunday we all rode to and from Hay on Wye, which was a much greater privilege for us than it was for him!

We found Ian to be thoughtful anIan_Hibell_(21).jpgd unassuming, whilst being completely absorbed in his life of cycling. He talked of his great journeys (including the first crossing of the Darien Gap in Central America) and his plans to complete the ride he was then part way through the North Sea to the Pacific (Holland to Vladivostok) through Russia and Mongolia.

He spread hisIan_Hibell_(34).jpg large scale map on the floor and swept his hand across thousands of empty miles as if they were our Sunday ride! To him, long-distance lone cycling on an ageing bicycle, sleeping rough and finding food as and when he could, had become a normal part of his life and he was genuinely puzzled that others might find it remarkable!

His equipment could not have been simpler Ian_Hibell_(37).jpgnot for him the complexities of the GPS or the bicycle computer. A small tent, paraffin stove, waterproof cape, woolly hat and socks were more than enough; after all, he is now a pensioner!

The following account of his current ride is pieced together from emails he sends us; his opening paragraph describes how new computer skills are to him and how important they have become. For us, currently motorhoming and cycling in Romania, it is wonderful to be in touch with a traveller of his calibre; to be in touch and to feel that we can be of some help and support.

 For more (and larger) images of Ian during the weekend in Breconshire, click here.

28 February 2006

At last, I have the means to communicate with you directly and rapidly. I met a Belgian couple in Phnom Penh who took me in hand. Not only did they fix me up with a reliable new email address, they made me sit down and learn how to use it; bless them!

So here I am, in a position to tell you exactly where I am and how I got here. What a miracle. Well, I attended the New Zealand wedding as planned and did get to explore New Caledonia. I didn't get to see it at its best for the skies were leaden and I had some of the rain I could do with right now. It will register very lowly on my list of South Pacific islands. Never mind, still an improvement on a Winter back home.

On schedule I visited friends in Japan, which meant I did experience a little bit of snow before reaching Bangkok. So at last I was ready to begin the previously elusive slice of SE Asia I couldn't reach before. I arrived in Saigon a couple of days ago. Tomorrow I set off for the coast and the long journey north to Laos and China. There is no definite objective, just to go as far as I can.

That raps up the tour news to date. I'm now wondering about your sojourn in Greece? It's alright for some! Others have to do some pedalling in heat that melts the brain. No justice in the world. I'll close now as I have some serious relaxing to do.

Happy wintering.

3 March 2006

So happy to get such a rapid reply from you and to be able to read it at leisure during a day off. I completed the 200 km from Saigon in a couple of easy but boring days to reach coastal Phan Thiet on a high.

Crossing a bridge into the city in the evening light, I couldn't reach for my camera quickly enough (mostly unused before then). Dozens of fishing boats filling the river banks. What a sight!

Now I'm off to ride by a renowned beach so I might need another memory card after all.

Good news about my feared lost Mongolian coverage. It's now safe in Brixham.

Statistics so far: 400 km of uninspiring touring in New Caledonia and now a further 1,200 km from Bangkok to here. I now feel I have really begun this South-east Asian tour at last. I hope I have the endurance to finish it. At present, there is no real fixed objective but it will all be delightfully fresh to me with no duplication. This I like.

Look forward to hearing from you again.

5 March 2006

This is not pretending to be an answer to your wonderful letter, I'll do that on my next rest day which will be when I need one. I've had a hard couple of days of 125 km and 80 km on the trot. I'm trying to follow the suggested time schedule in my Lonely Planet, but the writer obviously didn't carry full camping gear! Anyway I've cycled just under 400 km from Saigon and reached Ba Ngoi. There's a challenge for you to find it. Too tired to say more now, I'm sure you'll understand. Closing now. Ian

10 March 2006

Time to get the atlas out! I've reached Qui Nhon. It's 730 km out of Saigon. The scenery has become dramatic these last couple of days, tall lush palms and fishing boats but not, I hasten to add, in the same place. I've cycled over 200 km in that time so I'm taking half a day's rest.

To cut down on expenditure, I've been camping to afford a rest in a good place called Barbara's Guest House. She is an ex-pat Kiwi, the pancakes are great and so is her company!

I enjoyed your photograph, finally produced it after several tries in different places.

I'm glad to hear you are well set up with pleasant company to see the winter out. It sounds an idyllic location and lifestyle. Well, I'll have to do some hard touring sufficient for the three of us until you are ready to put your shoulders to the wheel again. I should have said legs?

I've been meeting some interesting people, as one does on these tours. Who wants to miss out on this by staying at home? As you remarked, the pension trickles in home or away. It's not a bad old life is it? On that note, I'll close.

14 March 2006

As to the tour, I've reached the delightful little river and coastal town of Hoi An to complete the 2,000 km (1,250 miles) mark. At last the scenery has picked up and I'm getting in the right mood and rhythm. Did 130 km yesterday with no stress, and have regularly topped a hundred - and I'm not in a hurry. As I remarked, somebody has to do the miles, but it's supposed to hurt. What went wrong?

I found this hotel which could get me my Laos visa, so here I wait for a few days, scoffing their sumptuous pineapple pancakes, absolutely swimming in honey. It's tough being a touring man, as you might just about remember.

Just about to try to find your website.

27 March 2006

Thanks for the newsletter that I will read later: it's a bit big for immediate perusal. Have arrived in the Laos city of Savannakhet. After completing over 2,500 km in SE Asia, feel I need and deserve a rest.

30 March 2006

Have been in Savannakht several days now, resting. I really needed a break and so I started to write just throwing a few ideas around. I will not get such an opportunity again.

I had a problem of my own, I had a drink which didn't agree with me and suffered a bad stomach as a consequence and couldn't leave as planned this morning. As it was, I avoided the first of the season's downpours and I'm still not ready to face another one tomorrow.

8 April 2006

Again greetings from a steamy and hot Laos. I arrived in Vientiane (the capital of Laos) a couple of days ago, remarkably fresh after covering 450 km in four days.

The country is entering its hottest month and shorter of its two "rains". I'm now paying for attending that wedding and the delay it caused but no regrets. I really am enjoying it here and the much slower pace of life. Tomorrow, for the second time, I'm back to a school where I've been invited to share their New Year festival celebrations. Last night I attended my English professor's daughter's birthday dinner. My contribution: me and the birthday cake. This is the very situation I travel for and hope to find.

My immediate plans are as follows. After the festival I aim to head north for Luang Prabang and then turn east for the Vietnamese border and on to Hanoi. On entering China, I will be making for Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. I will have to see whether I can get that far or not. If I'm successful and still enjoying the summer, I may even try for Ulan Bator (capital of Mongolia) in order to connect with reaching that city last year. This is a big "if" and still very many miles away. Time and strength are the factors in the decision to go for it or not. The idea is very attractive to me now, but it may well be an ambition too far! I will definitely be home by the late summer or early autumn: I couldn't stand a repetition of the snow I faced in Siberia. I must be getting soft!

12 April 2006

I have at last found your website. I had no idea I had written so much and it does seem readable enough. As you say, I don't look at my own tours as others see them and the fact that I completed them diminishes them in some way. It is all rather an anticlimax once the excitement of the challenge is over. You become so used to pushing yourself to the limit that it becomes the norm, and the norm becomes easier as time goes on.

These difficult sections are relatively short against the whole tour but the fearful anticipation of possible failure, and the dire consequences of doing so, give one such a buzz. Every so often I needed that buzz as much as the desert thirsts for water. There are many who seek excitement; I found another way to have it.

Tomorrow, I'm heading back into that black area behind the moon: no internet connection for at least six days. Everybody can have a rest from my ramblings and with any luck I might be consumed by a column of ants. A posthumous book would sell for sure. So I'm riding north into the mountains in an attempt to reach Luang Prabang. It could be the most severe test so far.

23 April 2006

Vientiane to Luang Prabang

I wasn't too surprised this morning to find I'd overstayed my visa time - by one day! However, I'm sitting in a delightful guesthouse/restaurant where they are able to help me avoid being shot at dawn.

Apart from the slow journey through the mountains from Vientiane, which has proved to be the scenic highlight of the tour so far, there were further delays. I'd originally lost 3 days hanging around in Vientiane, teaching in an English class and waiting to be collected to share their New Year-festival. I waited, but there was no further word.

In Vang Vieng, Ian_Hibell_in_Laos_MBT_JPeg.jpgI faced a delay of a different nature: a fierce dose of the dreaded trots. I had to remain in constant sight of the 'you know where' for two days, and when half-ready to go (I had to try), I slipped on the wash house ramp, ending on my back. Somehow, I strained my ankle and shin and limped back to my cabin (a $4 grass-roofed hut) and lay on my floor mattress and nearly wept at my predicament.

An ankle swollen enough to make walking difficult was not funny, when I was in the middle of the toughest section of the tour and faced 15 kilometres of steep climbing. The agony drew screams when I had to use my left foot to push on the pedal while getting onto the saddle. What a lark!

Working on the theory that exercise would cure it, I ignored the discomfort I had no real option - and I'm pleased to say that, although not healed, I can live with it.

So now I'm deep into northern Laos with 3,454 kilometres under my pneumatic boots. The return to Vietnam will be interesting, as it will present mountains which might make the previous climbs seem like rolling over pimples. Can I do it? The truth is - I don't really know. I have learned that although I can still climb, the old strength has gone. I'm just pleased to get there at all and kids on mini bikes are welcome to their moments of glory as they race past me. But I'm surviving and moments like this, when I'm totally stuffed with a banana pancake, liberally honeyed, and the Laos speciality of meb swimming with coffee - I'd say that was living.

I got here really knackered and will take another break - the old man is always resting you say? Too true, but I am totally recovered from the stomach problem. I have to wait anyway because I over-ran my visa time and that is being sorted. I'm still suffering from a sore shin and swollen ankle so I really need this break and intend to enjoy it.

28 April 2006

Luang Prabang: 3,454 km into the journey

Today a different report with only a single reference to a bicycle for a change.

Despite carrying me through the first serious mountains on the way to Luang Prabang, my recently injured ankle was still swollen and painful when inadvertently twisted. I received much advice. Amputation seemed a bit drastic. The embrocation was so fierce it could lift paint off a tin. I was told both to bind it tightly, and not to do so at all. To dangle it in a cool stream, and to place it in a pan of hot brine. In my capacity as a layman, I prescribed an alternative: a day's complete rest. Then I'd go exploring with Steve, a day on a bus followed by a long boat journey ,where the only possible strain would be a sore backside.

Steve was a roving Canadian with a mission. A Swedish friend, Lars, had built himself a hut, not just up the River Nam Ou but a one-and-a-half-hour's walk beyond the waterside village of Muang Ngoi. I felt I just had to hobble after Steve to view this Utopia. Why did a European wish to hide himself away beyond the back of beyond? This must be a paradise indeed. When in residence (at present he was away), what did he do all day? Meditate? Talk to the insects, maybe drink with the locals? Write, philosphise?

The bus journey was not too uncomfortable and, apart from locals, there was a girl with a rucksack who had to borrow my map to check on where she was going. East of the Chinese-bound junction, the road immediately became rougher, narrower and rural. For the next 30 km we drove through villages where dogs slept unconcerned in the middle of the road beside enormous piles of buffalo droppings. Cows would amble or pause with an empty stare, their busy day not to be interrupted by a honking bus driver saying naughty things about the bovines' parentage, in Lao.

Chickens would wait until the last milli-second to make a clucking wing-assisted dash under the very wheels of anything that passed, be it cyclist, truck or bus. One duck paid the ultimate price for not being quick enough, unfortunately squashed too flat to be eaten except in a large hamburger bun. A mother paused as she washed a shiny laughing naked boy at the village fountain. It would have been a more memorable sight had the roles been reversed. One can dream - we had a friendly wave in lieu.

A small group of backpackers assembled at the river boat office and information was handed around in much confusion as to when we would leave or whether to insure ourselves. My ankle made boarding the long skinny canoe a hazardous operation but all treated me with the respect due to my age and the physical attention one would give to an infirm granny. I didn't mind a bit.

The voyage in a fairly rapid canoe was an invigorating delight. Throwing out a broad wake, the pilot tackled the mild rapids with experience and spray soaked one or two, who were the envy of us fellow-passengers. One of them was perturbed, having been in a canoe whose hull was gouged by a rock, forcing the occupants to swim and wade to safety. Around us were strangely shaped conical hills, forested down to the water's edge. Fishing floats bobbed at our passing and kids played in the water at the bases of red earthen tracks leading up to hidden huts. The children always stopped their frolicking to wave and, with nothing to disturb their idyll, had permanent smiles etched upon their still innocent faces.

Smaller skiffs were paddled around within sight of Muang Khua and we gently floated to the landing site at the base of a 100 ft bank. Flattened bottoms soon recovered their rounded shapes and redundant leg muscles groaned at the climb.

The reception committee, offering their own accommodation as the ultimate in comfort, and a few interested spectators observed that they had a geriatric on their hands. I'm sure they would have organised a litter to get me up those crude steps but I did it, on hands and knees, with my pride if not my dignity still intact.

This was a tropical Shangri-La. Its one main dirt road was scrupulously clean, running from a temple and meeting place down to a track which led off to the 'caves' and forest inland. To us from the outside world, it was a step back in time: no cars, vans or motorbikes here, very few cables visible, no TV! There was a row of crude bamboo huts with one or two well-stocked shops, their wares a splash of colour against the predominantly soft yellow/brown dwellings. Guest houses and simple restaurants were probably providing the main income but we tourists (we can call ourselves anything, but basically that's all we are: tourists) are not so glaringly obvious as to spoil it for each other.

Steve had his quest and the trail began at the guesthouse owned by Lars' friend. He was easy to find and, sitting on our veranda overlooking the River Nam Ou, we ate our inevitable fried rice while learning just where Lars' hut could be found. The simple life we Westerners pine for comes at a price. The beer was warm and the lights went out at 9 pm, when the generator was switched off. It was surprising to us that our host and all the women touting for business - us!- spoke enough English to do so.

Our huts were simple in the extreme, a row of three lined up on stilts, containing just the beds, covered ominously with mosquito nets. Apart from doors, the only openings were small windows. This was rough carpentry. The solid railings we leaned upon, rough hewn out of twisted timber, were as old as the Ark. They had adzed notches for the positioning of candles when the generator died. The little mounds of red grease were evidence of many hours of river-watching.

Steve and I sat on our veranda, dinner long over. First one empty bottle of Lao beer, then two. By the morning light there were six. Missionaries sometimes drank far too much and it's not difficult to understand why.

Determined to see Lars' hut, I followed Steve as best as I could until he suggested I use a cane. The theory that the injury would benefit from use after yesterday's rest did not prove to be sound. Poor Steve must have wondered if we'd ever reach that myth of a hamlet with me tagging along.

It was a scenic walk, never too far from a river, and the well used track was not too rough for a determined limper like me. It crossed a couple of wadeable streams and we had a quick look at a cave we hadn't the lights to explore. Once a girl did that and got lost in there, to be found a year later. Adventures can always have an undesirable down side, even the best-prepared ones.

We did find Lars' hamlet and there, stored against a wall of the well situated restaurant, were some of his possessions. (Enough odd tourists go walking in the hills to make feeding them profitable.) Sitting there, overlooking a valley of now dry paddy fields, we learned that his hut was up on the hillside above us. A young guide took us there but, on arrival, Steve and I looked at one another in disbelief. Any romantic notion of a hut to escape to, far from the mad world, ended. Over a stile and a few yards up an untidy weed-riven bank stood a small cell made of bamboo with a single closed window. The roof extended over the balcony, offering no shade at all from the remorseless sun. No place to sit drinking a gin and tonic while admiring the view - there wasn't one anyway, not even a distant river to gaze on in contemplation. Apart from a lean-to for cooking, that was it.

Surrounded by rough bush and lacking even a water supply, the ex-convicts of French Devil's Island had better facilities and a better view. Steve remarked that an hour up there would drive him crazy and wondered what on earth Lars could do with himself all day, apart from meditation? Our young guide said he raised cucumbers and the barrier was to keep the pigs out. Even leeks, raised in pots in high unusual places, had to be protected from this enemy of cultivation

No more cold beer to make life at least a little more bearable, as we were in an area where refrigeration was a planet away. I thought that Lars must be some kind of nutter - either that or he was the reincarnation of Buddha. Maybe the Swede was a modern replica of Lord Jim of the Islands in Joseph Conrad's epic, seeking atonement for a significant misdeed, and this was his form of self-punishment.

By the time I hobbled wearily into the village that evening (a couple of unfortunate jolts had not helped my ankle at all), Steve reckoned the locals were laying bets on me getting down to the boat in the morning, head or tail first? I defied the odds and stayed more or less upright, leaning very heavily on my stick for the treacherous descent. Once safely aboard, I launched my cane into the river with as much emotion as wishing an old friend goodbye. It should have reached the Mekong by now. We will not meet again for I'm going the other way.

Two days later I was on the bicycle again heading for Hanoi.

8 May 2006

From Luang Prabang (Laos) for 450 km across the mountains towards Vietnam

Little accommodation was available on this leg and so I was glad of the tent. Despite the ants and extinct tigers and such, I survived to reach Xam Neua (sorry, get out the atlas for this one) yesterday, having ridden 450 km through the heart of the Laos mountains. Magnificient, stupendous. One runs out of superlatives. It nearly killed me! I climbed for ever (20 km) to face another 10. I seriously wondered if I was at last beaten. I should rename this the SE Asian walking/cycling tour. I have a low gear but lack of a high enough calorific food intake reduced me to a weak reminder of the strength with which I left Luang Prabang. On full power, I could have ridden more but as it is I'm just happy to have crawled here at all. The heat was terrible and pushing the load from one patch of shade to the next needed a total all-out effort, which I could only maintain for a few yards at a time. Was it worth it? Now it's over you bet! What goes up must sooner or later come down and then what a thrill!

The day after tomorrow I head for the Vietnamese border and Hanoi. The hardest stage must be over, so I should make it. A few more freewheeling miles would be in order!

There is a gap here (Luang Prabang in Laos to Hanoi) in Ian's emailed record which he hopes to fill. The problems of keeping notes, finding internet cafes, bars or libraries, struggling with unfamiliar keyboards on old machines with a slow and unreliable connection can sometimes be too much on a long and challenging ride. As we well know! 

Hanoi

It took very nearly 3 weeks for the cold to run its course and a hacking cough made me an unwelcome guest in my eating haunts - apart from the money I was paying them. They didn't actually say, but the looks! The one exception was the German-food-serving Kaiser Kaffee. They put me in a dark corner under a portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm and provisions were made to smother me if necessary. Their food was good and gave me a welcome break from noodles. Those breakfast pancakes provided were, I swear, the best this side of the moon.

My health was slow to improve. The miniscule size of the airless cell I occupied in my seedy hotel probably delayed things, but I could afford no other for the extended break I needed. False economy! To try to combat the attraction the place held for the odd buzzing mosquito (what they saw in it apart from me, goodness knows), I had to close the only fresh air entry - a sliding window in the toilet. Grasping a very small kitten by the tail and whirling it around in my room would have battered its brains out and the close confines didn't do much for mine. One night in a frenzy of itching misery I was too extravagant with the repellent. By the morning, I couldn't see, think or walk straight and it took an hour to come to my senses enough to realise the cause: I'd nearly asphyxiated myself.

My Kaiser Kaffee hostess, who was an agent for the company, suggested it was better to die at sea and booked me on a 2-day junk cruise. Burials were cheaper there and much less fussy. So I was bussed down to Halung Bay in the company of a Dutch honeymoon couple and an Aussie/British pairing. We were the only guests on a many-cabined craft and I was well prepared for a lot of pampering from a crew that outnumbered us. The bay is famed for its over 3,000 islands moulded in a variety of odd shapes. It's one of those unique and brooding places that would have lent itself to a James Bond film - give it time.

We set out to sea from a harbour filled with junks similar to our own but did not fortunately become one of a fleet. While we anchored for a fish lunch in keeping with our situation, the light began to fade. However it added to, rather than detracted from, a voyage that raised many questions, for we didn't really know what to expect of it. The environment was so unusual and as different from the Adriatic as it could be. We began to move again and we were all up on deck - even the honeymoon couple - breathing in the atmosphere. It would have helped this account had we been attacked by pigtailed cut-throats but it didn't happen just, much later, an invasion from the boat people who live, work and procreate on the water. How they make a living selling food and tourist mementos to passing junks I seriously questioned. I learned that their children go to boarding schools on the mainland and very few chose to return to their romantic floating islands.

One after another, dark shapes loomed over us and the fog set the scene for believable pirate watching. The mystical atmosphere enveloped us and boats appeared out of the gloom to disappear as floating ghosts, only the throbbing engines and wake reassuring us that they weren't indeed supernatural. As we reached and docked at our village objective, the sun broke through and we were taken to see their caves. It involved a serious climb up to the entry and a slippery descent down into the very core of the island. With the timely arrival of the sun, its beams pierced through holes in the roof and highlighted gigantic pinnacles. A junk voyage and now this? We explored a labyrinth of tunnels leading to huge rock theatres.

Coloured lights had been placed in strategic positions, which might shock the purists but did lead to a magnificent display, arguably enhancing the natural order of thing, tinting facets of an arena untouched until recently, left in total peace since the world began. Our attention was often drawn to rock images. One resembled a turtle, which figures highly in their folk lore. Some creatures required considerable imagination to identify. The place had an uncanny silence that inclined us to talk in whispers: no bats, no tinkling water, no remains of animals or humans. When people did arrive it was with a vengeance. A route was laid out with steps and a concrete walkway and cables dragged in to bring in the volts. It was an unusual place for such a natural cathedral, deep in the roots of an island. I would like to find out how it was discovered; one day I will.

We had the party of parties that night and our anchored junk hardly bobbed in the swell as the drinks were downed. It was necessary to paddle to and through a distant cave to clear our heads and my dying cold, it was mandatory. The only one, of course, who knew the way was our submariner guide. The poor fellow had me in the bow of our kayak and I fell well short of the performance seen on those television filmed competition courses. My poor arms were not used to that and began to hurt before we'd got half way. Paddling against the stream to enter the cave was a combination of agony, burning chest pains and utter discomfort, as I was sitting in feet, well inches then, of water, which the guide tried to point out to me was caused mainly by my paddling style. The cheek of the fellow: I didn't know I had one and nearly told him if he didn't like it to get out and walk, which he did.

He was towing a rather deflated and bedraggled 'once upon a lifetime' cyclist to clearer water beyond the very gentle rapids. We emerged out of the cave to find we were floating in a tranquil salt-water lake fed by the surrounding mountains. We spotted jellyfish and its fish stocks would probably support the islanders for the rest of the century. It was an idyllic lagoon. A thriving monkey population lived on the tree-clad slopes around us but we saw no sign of them. Reluctantly I resumed paddling again; it took some time to regain our junk where our final stories were told on the voyage back to the mainland.

I returned to Hanoi minus the cold and with a new respect for kayakers, having found it's not as easy as they make it appear. I resolved in future to pay more attention to the small print, for I had no idea that the junk voyage also included a 100 mile paddle. Well maybe not quite, but my blistered hands felt it not too far short. I hadn't proved I might have been a great loss to the sport by not taking up kayaking, but could I still ride a bike? I was just about to find out.

June 6.

Towards the Vietnam/China Border.

After three weeks of fighting off a hacking cough accompanying a bad cold I finally resumed the tour with temporary company. My German friend Reinhard Kaisten--a Berlin bike messenger-accompanied me over the bridge spanning the Red River and for the first few kilometres. Without his guidance judging by my previous record, I'd still be trying to leave Hanoi. The going was flat and hot and we parted company after a crushed sugar cane drink each. A hand shake and I was off.

It was easy going out of Tu Son but I began to pay the price of the long lay off and struggled into Bac Ninh. By then I was already thinking of calling it a day at Bac Giang. I made a long effort to find a guest house there but failed. After a meal of fried meat rolls and soup swimming with vegetables I decided to press on to smaller Kep but Reinhard's theory of a whole clutter of guest houses lining the road to the Chinese border proved false. I ran out of the uninspiring flatness and entered a region of hills backing the Huu Lien Nature Reserve.

I reached Chi Lang in the evening knowing that was as far as I had the strength to go, my original planned stop at least 60km behind me. I'd ridden well in excess of 100kms and couldn't even find a place to eat let alone sleep. The prospect of a guest house seemed less than zero. The cafe/bar I had to rest in had none of the usual nuts and crisps to give one a thirst and I sat there ruminating eating through my emergency supply of biscuits with a couple of beers they could supply. Preparing to start the long walk-it was quite dark by then - to find a place to camp by feel, the young girl I paid asked me in good English where I came from. I took advantage of it to ask if there was any place I might sleep. Yes she said "There is a guest house next door" She took me there and introduced me to her neighbour and followed with the bike bless her.

The room I found myself in accomodated long tables which were metal edged and floral topped. There were long wooden benches alongside each. It seemed to be an eating house but no food was being served unfortunately. Maybe it was because it was Sunday. Only the family group were present gathered around the TV. I was shown a bed in the corner and presumed it was for me. My host gave me a towel and showed me the wash room, crude but clean, just a bowl on the floor and a tap above it. Here and there ledges housed toothbrushes and other bathroom odds and ends. Drying washing hung there and a bowl of soaking clothes was on the floor. I was grateful for the wash but desperate to lay down, I had had it!

Outside the bathroom was a further table and more benches in an ante chamber at a lower level than the main room. It was open to the street which could be reached up a series of long steps, a very odd place indeed. With the possibility of offending the family I had to lay down. It felt good in the slight draft wafting in from the street. Hardly there 5 minutes my host found me and with sympathy I was taken to a beautiful room. Clean and with a polished lino floor there were half a dozen straw mats laid alongside one wall and one at the end had pillows, blankets and a mosqueto net in place. Thats where I spent the night.

Come morning I was invited to join others in the main room and tea and soup was served. It is a large open ended room overlooking the road, the plaster walls a light green with several fans fixed to permanent attachments above the guests for it did turn out to be a restraunte. It seemed to double as living quarters for the family and their business.

I had indeed stumbled across a restaurant, which was its main function, for there in the main room I was invited to sit with others for breakfast. Tea and soup were served with the inevitable noodles but a small glass of the local firewater helped. After an iced drink of pure lemonade, I was well prepared for an easy and short run to the border town of Lang Son. I was sure there would be a guesthouse and I intended to spend my last night of the Vietnamese tour in it. I reached the town at midday and was going to spend the afternoon savouring memories of an extraordinary adventure so far, while mentally preparing myself to enter a country I had always felt apprehensive about tackling. Part of the plan was at least to arrive there fresh.

Lang Son was approached along an avenue with a division the length of it, but only the left lane in use. Once again I'd reached a place that didn't seem to have a centre or, if it did, no obvious way to reach it. Finding a large cafe/bar I decided to rearrange my priorities: a drink first and then accommodation. I was immediately ushered to a low table and my bum overfilled the small plastic chair offered, one way of trapping a customer. A beer - fairly chilled - arrived without ordering it, which appeared to be the form if one sits. Extras were delivered: slim slivers of what might have been pork were individually wrapped in leaves and a small bowl of chilli sauce was strategically placed alongside one of hot chutney. I had a small peck at the nuts but shelling them was more trouble than it was worth. Trying to sound out my hosts about the availability of a hotel was harder than drawing the teeth of a hen but eventually - with help - I did find the metropolis. Once over a large bridge, my guide deserted me but, with a growing instinct for knowing where to look, I found the Nam Kinha hotel. So I had my night of semi-luxury and that closed the Vietnam expedition, but not quite!

It was but a short 13 km run to the border but a late start plunged me into immediate heat and I sought shelter in the little town there. Deceived by the map into thinking the crossing point was to be reached via a central junction, I wasted a lot of time trying to find it. Nobody I asked or showed the map to had heard of China, nor could they find themselves on it. In a mood of utter exasperation, I returned to the fork I'd veered off. Although there was a signboard it certainly didn't point to China. I had no record of the solitary name on it but it was the only option open to me. The once closed Bamboo Kingdom just had to be down there somewhere, it was too big to lose!

Regards with plenty of love to you pair of fellow travellers.

Ian

To read of Ian's journey onward journey through China, click:    Ian in China

Table of Places and Distances between Bangkok and Hanoi 2006

For my own record and to give people some idea of where it all happened, I'm going to try and put down an understandable timetable. Here goes:

Feb 6 Left Bangkok. Reached Chaco Engsao. Accommodation offered at Tanavat.

Feb 7 Camped in forest short of Sakaeo.

Feb 8 Camped on the outskirts of Watthana Nakhon. Town lights visible.

Feb 9 Enter Cambodia. Camped by roadside at base of bank.

Feb 10 Camped by river 10 km beyond Thkov.

Feb 11 Siem Reap.

Feb 12 Rest.

Feb 13 Circuit of Angkor Wat temples.

Feb 14 Rest.

Feb 15 Begin ride to Phnom Penh.

Feb 18 Phnom Penh.

Feb 23 Leave Phnom Penh and reach Neak Loung.

Feb 24 Svay Rieng. Enter Vietnam.

Feb 25 Saigon.

Mar 2 Leave Saigon and reach Xuan Hung.

Mar 3 Phan Thiet.

Mar 4 Rest.

Mar 5 Leave Phan Thiet and reach Ca Na.

Mar 6 Ba Ngoi.

Mar 7 Nha Trang.

Mar 8 Rest.

Mar 9 Leave Nha Trang and reach Phu Lam.

Mar 10 Camp amongst sand dunes 20 km short of Qui Nhon.

Mar11 Qui Nhon.

Mar 12 Sa Huynh.

Mar 13 Quang Ngai.

Mar 14 Hoi An.

Mar 18 Leave Hoi An and reach Danang.

Mar 19 Lang Co.

Mar 20 Hue.

Mar 21 Dong Ha.

Mar 22 Huong Hoa.

Mar 23 Enter Laos. Camp.

Mar 24 Dong Hene.

Mar 25 Savannakhet.

April 1 Leave and reach Seno.

April 5 Vientiane.

April 13 Leave Vientiane. After omelette in village, sleep in hut by river.

April 14 Vang Vien.

April 17 Leave Vang Vien.

April 18 Kasi.

April 19 Muang Phu Khun.

April 20 Sleep in lean-to in valley village. Audience for cooking and sleeping.

April 21 Luang Prabang.

April 24 Bus and boat journey to Muang Ngoi in seach of Swede's hut.

April 25 Walk into forest to trace hut.

April 26 Return to Luang Prabang.

April 30 Leave Luang Prabang and reach Pak Mong. Find hotel.

May 1 Nong Khiaw. Sleep in Sunset Chalet.

May 2 Vieng Kham.

May 3 Camp beyond Nong Kham.

May 4 Vieng Thong.

May 5 Camp beyond Phou Lao.

May 6 Saleuy.

May 7 Xam Neua.

May 11 Leave Xam Neua and camp beyond Vieng Xai.

May 12 Nameo. Room provided in border town.

May 13 Re-enter Vietnam.

May 15 Hanoi.

Breakdown of Distance

Bangkok to Hoi An 1,998 km

Hoi An to Seno 583 km

Seno to Vientiane 440 km

Vientiane to Vang Vieng 200 km

Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang 233 km

Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw 141 km

Nong Khiaw to Hanoi 726 km

Total Distance Bangkok to Hanoi: 4,321 km