Turn left into Laos

When people asked before we left why we decided to travel by bicycle, I told them that we wanted to be free to go wherever we wanted. So in case a local would said it was better to go left than right, we simply could. And so we did. And unexpectedly ended up in lovely Laos!

Here’s how it happened:

After Christmas it started raining in Vietnam. Not just an hour at the end of the afternoon, but full days of pooring cold rain. We had the plan to cycle up north via the old and beautiful Ho Chi Min Road. But the weather forecast was really bad, both where we were at that time (Hué) as where we were heading (Sapa and Hanoi). And while we were looking very much forward to cycle in the pristine mountain areas of Vietnam, it didn’t look like we were going to see a lot of them with all those clouds. This weather wasn’t a hickup from mother nature, it’s an annual thing called the winter monsoon, and it makes mid/north Vietnam very wet during December/January. After a few days in wet cycling pants and limited views from under our rain cap, we had enough.

And then a magical thing happened.

One morning in the remote village of A Luoi, we were having breakfast trying to recharge ourselves for the rainy cycling day ahead. A retired german man saw our packed bicycles and walked up to us for a chat. He spends his winters in Vietnam, and did quite some cycling while in the area. He was the type of cyclist we definitely relate to; collecting impressions instead of kilometers. And he just came back from Laos, where apparently the weather was completely opposite, and the mountains were great too.

“You’re likely to see the first signs of blue sky as from the border.”

“You could cycle The Loop from Thakhek. It’s beautiful out there.”

“I think it will rain for at least another 2 weeks here in Vietnam.”

We were sold. And luckily we had the freedom of our bicycle, enough time and the right passport.

– Random encounters are the best. Thank you Joachim Geppert for showing us the way. –

So one last wet cycling day later, we took a turn left instead of the planned one to the right. The next day we crossed the border into Laos. And how funny it was to see the first cracks in the grey clouds when in line at the immigration office. 1 hour later, we were sweating again under a burning sun.

This random encounter was the best that could have happened. The cycle route he proposed was just STUNNING and one of the prettiest scenery I have seen in southeast Asia. We loved how Laos is not too touristically developped (at least the small part we have seen). We were really happy to add this last Indochinese country to our route, and to discover that it’s a great mix of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam but with quieter roads and gentle traffic. And we enjoyed the very pure way of living including the many handicrafts (which makes great souvenirs).

– views over limestone mountains and forest on The Thakhek Loop, a must-do when in Laos if you ask us –

– the simple but happy life on the side of the road –

– homemade handmade textiles. I could have bought the entire shop. –

So even when we’ve cycled over 5000km in Asia and my bum truly hurts, I’m still so happy we travel by bicycle, unmotorised, independent, at the perfect speed of +/- 20km/h to have a good look around, and to have the freedom to take that turn left.

Missing out in Vietnam

We only stayed 3 weeks in Vietnam. Too short to visit the entire country of almost 2000km long. And while we were missing out on a lot, we really enjoyed Vietnam!

– enjoying a friendly Banh Mi on the side of the road in Vietnam –

Missing the end of year at home.

December is a typical month to be at home. Preparing gifts, decorating your home, spending Christmas with family and New Year’s eve with friends, and having a few days off and enjoy being cosy at home. Ooh yes, sometimes I do miss just being at home.

We thought we would not be confronted with Christmas atmosphere too much in Vietnam, but that was wrong. There are many Catholics in southern Vietnam, many churches (a few are still in construction), hence a lot of Christmas atmosphere. In many coffee bars and restaurants you would hear nothing but Christmas music and the shops were full of red Christmas outfits.

– church with vietnamese Christmas decoration –

We – kind of – celebrated by going to a western restaurant and a video chat with the family. We also sent a package of souvenirs back home, making ourselves a little present at the celebrations in Belgium.

– as close as it gets to my mom’s traditional stuffed turkey: chicken with mushrooms and a bottle of red wine

New Year’s eve was a little different. We enjoyed the visit of friends from Belgium, thinking we’d celebrate together on a sunny beach, but ended up in a rainy city and a bar full of tourists, wearing a rain coat and wet Teva’s. Seems the Vietnamese don’t celebrate the same New Year as we do. And life just went on like any other day on January 1st.

While we missed some aspects of the end-of-year celebrations in Belgium, we also enjoyed a lot to watch and learn how it’s done (or not) on the other side of the world. While we go crazy on gifts, fireworks, fancy outfits and indigestions, other people apparently don’t have that same need or tradition. It’s making you rethink your own traditions and what you truly value about them.

Missing out on many touristic highlights.

We made a strange tour through Vietnam, missing out on many highlights such as the Mekong delta, Saigon, Ha Long Bay and Sa Pa, that are definitely in the Top 10 places to visit according to Lonely Planet, Rough Guide ànd Trip Advisor. We just didn’t manage to cover the huge distances in between (too long to cycle, and after one more bus experience in Vietnam, we’re still not fond of putting our bicycles on a bus) and encountered our first wave of bad weather (cycling in the rain is really only fun for an hour or so and with a guaranteed hot shower afterwards).

– cycling in the rain on the Ho Chi Min road –

While we could have sobbed about missing out on some of the prettiest places on earth, we still enjoyed Vietnam a lot, really! By experiencing other typical vietnamese specialties: The coffee/hammock culture along the side of the road. The many wedding celebrations we passed by. The friendliness and outgoing character of the Vietnamese (sidenote: in touristic areas as Nha Trang and Mui Ne we found them rather rude), the loud home karaoke’s on Sunday afternoon, the amazing coastline with huge sand dunes (often deserted or at times full of development – making us wonder how it will be like in 10 years), the beautiful misty mountains on the quiet Ho Chi Minh road in the west, …

– weddings on the side of the road. One day we saw over 15! A lot of love here in Vietnam –

– the rough coastline and fishery village of Vin Hy –

All of these can hardly be put in pictures, and sometimes it’s annoying that we can’t share the beauty of those experiences. But the good side of that is, that nobody can, and so we’re collecting real new impressions! And it didn’t feel at all like we were missing out on a lot.

Missing out is fine.

No FOMO (fear of missing out) for us in Vietnam. You can keep thinking about/watching to what you are missing. Or you can look at what is present and available, and appreciate that. In Vietnam we decided for ourselves to do the latter. It can be pretty, surprising, joyfull, but sometimes also ugly, boring or even emotional… But we have always found it very real, very vietnamese and very interesting.

– Hoi An is a very cute town full of lanterns ànd full of tourists (traps) –