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IndoChina Adventure 2009 - Week 03 Chapter : 07 Oct ~ 13 Oct


Flag of Vietnam


Flag of Lao

Laos (Lao)


Fascinating as Hanoi was, I still felt relieved to leave the Capital City of Vietnam. We saddled up the bikes early on a Sunday morning to avoid traffic. and to make sure that we would make it to our destination of Sapa before dark. Last year on this stretch, we had particular problems with mudslides and impassable roads, but this year was an uneventful ride with good roads. There was no lack of pigs, geese, chicken and people on and along the road, and so it is in Vietnam, full of color.

From the time we reached Sapa, 1,400 meters (or 4,600 feet) above sea level, our journey will be taking us through remote areas in the mountains of northern Vietnam and Laos. Meeting the Hill Tribes of Northern Vietnam is a definite highlight on our IndoChina Adventure, and I hope that you will enjoy the stories and many photographs below.

Until Next Week,

Helge Pedersen, Founder



Day 21 - Muong Xai, Laos - Mac McCaulley

Where has the last week gone?

Riding a motorcycle in Vietnam and Laos - a wonderful adventure so far! Only one typhoon, Typhoon Ketsena. On the one day we were deep in it, probably up to 50 mile per hour winds on the road and saw thousands of broken rubber trees. There were even a couple of large trees across the road in front of us, blocking our way. We made it to Hoi An one day late because of a closed road along the way. Did have a short boat ride in downtown Hoi An(!), and saw many homes and shops still under 2 to 3 feet of water. It had already come down about 4 feet. Mud and water had destroyed many streets. A shame because Hoi An is a World Cultural Heritage town, which used to be the main water port of Vietnam since the 17t century.

On to Hanoi, which is the capital of North Vietnam and has more of a communist feel about it than Saigon. We visited the Museum of Ethnology, which gave a history of the many diverse ethnic groups and some examples of the many styles of houses which we have seen. We also visited the outside of the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and the small basic house that he lived in. Also saw the Hanoi Hilton, which was the prison where former presidential candidate John McCain was held for 5 or so years during the Vietnam War. It also had a French guillotine left over from the 1800's.

During our tour that day I asked our guide why there was so much pollution in Hanoi. The "Communist" answer was that there was a lot of dust from the construction going on . . . Ha! Constant scooter traffic everywhere combined with diesel smoke from trucks and car traffic.

A true highlight of the trip so far was an overnight visit to Halong Bay. This area has been voted one of the 10 natural wonders of the world. It is comprised of almost two thousand large rock outcroppings and islands located in the Tonkin Bay not far south of the Chinese border. Spent the night on our own private Chinese junk, which included three meals and air conditioning. Also nearby where several fishing villages where people lived in small houses on the water. Very basic living.

On to Sapa, which is a small highland town at 4,200 feet above sea level. We had a hike to visit some of the Hill Tribe villages just outside of Sapa. That day, we walked through several of them and had a group of locals follow us for the whole 6 or 7 mile walk. At the end, they wanted to sell many of the wares that they had made. Some jewelry, handbags, etc. I spend a whopping $12.00 and made three of them happy.

The following day, we had a day off from the official itinerary and I hired local girl, Bam, to take me on more strenuous 8 mile hike or "trek" as they call it. She spoke excellent English, although she could neither read nor write it. When we started out on a steep water buffalo path in the jungle, I asked if we were lost. Bam said that we were but could find our way. About 2 hours later we came to the first village where Bam said they had probably never seen any “Westerners”.

I said “Hello” to some, but not a word of English was understood. Many of the children under 5 had no clothes whatsoever. When they went to kindergarten, they would start (wearing clothes). Bam said that this village had just received electricity for the first time about 3 years ago.

This whole area, like a lot of Vietnam, grows rice. This area is different because it is in the mountains and over generations, the people have terraced the mountain sides to grow their rice in small wide paddies stepped up the steep mountain sides. Someone said that perhaps as many as 80% of the Vietnamese have something to do with the growing or processing of rice.

The "real" motorcycle section of the trip so far has been a 2-day stretch from Sapa to Dien Bien Phu, and on to our first day in Laos in Oudomxay. The first stretch included dirt and rock/gravel roads with lots of mud, some of it deep and slippery, with many pot holes and BIG mud puddles. Also a couple of temporary road closures while they were "repairing" a bad road.

The second day had more of the same, but also included two bamboo bridges, each probably 100 or 150 feet long. They were probably no more than 3 feet wide over a river that I didn't dare to look at as I crossed.

These were followed by a suspension bridge over a wider river which was probably 250 feet across. Not to be outdone, we had two further short river crossings where the water was probably a foot deep for a short section, and at the end had a ferry barge across another river.

At the end of that day I think I had more mud on me than on the bike, but there were two long “adventure riding” days enjoyed by all . . . .

One last note - earlier in the trip, we visited the war museum in Saigon (Hoi Chi Minh City) and saw many photos of the Vietnam War. Ugly scenes from both sides, but with the old Communist slant against the Americans. Did see many photos of the results of the results of Agent Orange. Along the trip, especially early on, we have seen numerous real people along the road or in the cities with arm and leg deformities. Very moving . . . .


Day 18 - Sapa, Vietnam - Peter Pawluk

The Top 5 Things To Do in Sapa

5. Go for a walk through the market. Challenge your gastrointestinal immunity with a cheap meal in the market. Be sure to use lots of hot peppers. Stay close to the hotel for the next 3 hours.

4. Take in the human menagerie over a couple cold Tiger beers from a street side café. Haggle over the price of beer – don’t pay more than 25,000 dong (that’s $1.40) for a 500 ml bottle. Just because this is a tourist town doesn’t mean you want to be ripped off.

3. Take a trek through some Hill Tribe villages and experience a truly unique culture. Make friends with two or three ladies dressed in colourful traditional garb, only to discover them to be the some of the most tenacious sales people you’ll ever meet. They even have the pout down to a fine art. End the day paying too much to buy some handmade hemp goods that you (or the lucky recipient of the souvenir at home) will probably never use.

2. Put on a jacket after sweating for weeks in hot, humid lowland Vietnam. At 1,400 metres elevation , Sapa can be downright chilly at night. The town overlooks a beautiful valley that can only be appreciated from the pictures in the hotel lobby because the place is continuously enveloped in a dense cloud of fog.

1. Be a big spender and blow $6.00 to rent a 100cc Russian Minsk two-stroke motorbike with a wobbly front end and no brakes. Ride it like a dirt bike through water crossings, steep rocky hill climbs and descents, and discover little villages in the middle of nowhere. Marvel at the fine Soviet technology that enables this poor little bike to keep going and going and going . . . .

Day 22 - Luang Prabang, Laos - Frank Baughman

This expedition continues to enthrall and reward . . . . The flow of the traffic is like rapidly flowing water. Appears chaotic and scary at first (and as you can see in the photo below, sometime is!), but when one invests in joining in, it's fun and it really works. Almost choreographic in its working.

The people are warm and friendly. Language is no barrier in reaching out to another. They are too young in tourism for the 'gimme' syndrome. There is no carry-over from the 35 years ago war. They like Americans.

The country that they are concerned with (as aren't we all) is China. They feel the Chinese dump their crappy consumer goods onto them. Actually they don't have a corner on getting dumped on. There is also a territorial dispute between Viet Nam and China going on about some offshore islands. China is the bully. I think back to the "Domino Theory" prevalent 35-45 years ago. Now their most threatening enemy is another Communist neighbor . . . not the US.

The Lao people is so gentle in their demeanor. Laos is 90% Buddhist, creating a very benign atmosphere. Villages appear somewhat more primitive.

Currently, we are in Luang Prabang, which has to be near the top of my favorite places so far.

'Nuff for Now,



Day 23 - Luang Prabang, Laos - Debbie Christian

A Re-cap of Our First Three Weeks

We departed Hanoi early this morning.  The traffic was still crazy leaving town.  Two hours later we were finally headed up into the hills with a change of scenery and slightly cooler temperatures.

The rice fields were replaced with tea plantations.  Stunning scenery.  We took it slow so we could enjoy the views and we drove winding roads all day.  The bus drivers and truck drivers are insane.  The vehicles belch black exhaust and slow to a crawl on any incline, but watch out for the downhill grades!!  Suddenly they are on your ass and honking their horn.  They will pass on a blind curve or single lane road.  Remember, there are still a multitude of motos, cows, bicycles, kids, carts etc. in their path.  It doesn't matter, just get the hell out of the way.  It is especially fun when a car is passing another vehicle in the opposite direction at the same time. Oh, and add to the mix, road construction, piles of sand, gravel or piles of rice or wood on the sides of the road.

One needs a cold beer at the end of the days ride!

There's nothing like a Beerlao (or two!) at the end of a hard day's ride.

Relaxing on the Mekong River (but hello, where's my beer?).

We arrived in Sapa late in the afternoon.  What a beautiful place!  It reminds me a little of Cusco, Peru (but smaller).  We had a late lunch in the market, two bowls of rice noodle soup (Pho) and two large beers cost us $3.60.  Ya gotta love it!  Then off for a foot massage ($3.60 each).


FYI, the Dong is the word for Vietnamese currency . . . .

This place has a wildness to it.  It's in the mountains and incredibly beautiful.  The muddy waters have given way to clear mountain streams and large boulders.

Sapa, Vietnam

Harrison and I decided to hang out instead of going on the Hill Tribes visit.   We took our dirty laundry across the street that advertised "by the kilo" services.   A family operated business with three daughters and mom hand washing the clothing, line drying and folding it for you.  Dad and friend sat at the table drinking tea.  He insisted we join him and we visited for 1/2 an hour.  No English was spoken, but we had a great conversation with sign language and laughter.

It was the worst tea I have ever tasted, and the father must have seen my puckered up lips at one point because he opened a bag of guava candy and insisted on giving us a handful.  When we returned the next morning to pick up our laundry, we had a repeat scenario including the uncle coming to meet us and the daughters stroking my hair and letting us know they did not have husbands.  Evidently, the color (!!) and texture (fine) of my hair was considered quite beautiful to them . . . go figure!

We spent the rest of the day exploring the market, roaming the winding streets, eating (yum) and staving off the local Hmong tribe girls selling their handicrafts.  They know how to work you.  They ask you your name, “where you from?”  and  “you buy from me?”  “Make promise lady”, “I have baby”, on and on and on . . .  Their crafts are very nice, but it's a bit overwhelming!

Sapa, Vietnam

Harrison, Pete and I decided to rent local motorbikes.  Harrison and Pete rented the Soviet Minsk (oil and gas mix) and I had a lovely Honda urban people mover.  I love that bike.  Four gears and no clutch.  It would go anywhere, and believe me, we went everywhere.  We had a blast, one of those "best days".  Oh, and I actually ended up buying souvenirs from the local Hill Tribe gals.  Like I said, they're everywhere :)

Pete ripping it up on a Soviet Minsk (Harrison in the background).

My newest friend from the Hill Tribes.

Sapa to Dien Bien Phu

OMG [Editors's Note: for those not familiar with English “testing” acronyms, that’s Oh My God]!!   The mud.   And then there's more mud.  Deep mud.  Slimy, thick and gooey.  My heart palpitations finally subsided when I realized it was never going away, and I just had to deal with it.  Mud on corners, mud going uphill, mud going downhill, mud splashed on you from the large trucks and buses crawling along passing you.  It's definitely a good thing that I am not a girly girl!

Harrison has a slight mishap but he and I recover it before anyone comes around the corner! This is typical of the road entering Laos.

This was a very long and challenging day for us.  Road construction, road debris and still the endless array of pigs, chickens, cows, kids and motos.  At times the road was nothing more than a rutted path and at others your choice was deep slimy mud or large chunky rocks.  Oh, did I forget rain?  Off and on again . . . just enough to add to the mix.

Oh, but the scenery!!!  I believe the area is called the Tonkinese Alps.  The road got more mountainous and curvy, tracing vast river valleys with stunning vistas and small villages that added a National Geographic-like feel to it all.

Again, another one of those "best days".

Dien Bien Phu to Laos

The Powers That Be have smiled upon us.  We wake to a rain free day!  This is the day when we know the road turns to gravel as we cross from Vietnam into Laos.  Vietnam has been a good journey and given us many wonderful memories, but we are ready for the next part of our adventure.

Crossing the border went very smoothly.  And yes, almost immediately we were on gravel.  There are really no words for me to describe this day except that it was a BLAST!!  We crossed narrow bamboo “foot” bridges that were about 36"'s wide with no railing, then a wooden bridge and two stream fordings.  The road was challenging but reaffirms the reason we choose to ride a GS.

Yes!  I forded this this on my
bike.  This could become



Helge crossing one of the
bamboo foot bridges.

Laos Border to Luang Prabang

Good day . . . hit the bridge . . . more on that later . . . all good.  Our hotel is overlooking the Mekong River.  A great place to spend the next two days.

Our hotel in Luang Prabang, on the Mekong
River (with a cute guy "gone local").

Debbie Christian
Luang Prabang, Laos

Day 24 - Vientiane, Laos - Debbie Christian

Coming into town late on the day of our arrival into Luang Prabang, we have to cross a steel bridge with a wooden platform that is narrow and made for motorbikes only.  It is divided into two lanes, oncoming and forthright.  I forgot how big my "behind" was (come on now, the BIKE’S behind, not mine!) and clipped the divider on entrance.  Well, as any of you with a “big butt” know, when you even just bump something, it will throw you sideways.

That's exactly what happened, and I continued on while scraping my other pannier on the steel railing, lost my right mirror, and just was totally embarrassed and angry.

I was fine, my bike was fine but my panniers looked like someone had hammered them!  We continued the final few kilometers to the hotel and met up with Than, Chax (?), and our driver.  I had to have the left pannier hammered on with a tire iron just to remove it, and gave both to our driver, imploring him to find a machine shop and make them look "like new".

The next afternoon (after cruising the Mekong) they magically appeared in the hotel lobby and I gladly paid the $15.00 and put them back on my bike. Harrison fixed my mirror (removed his and put it on my bike, that's true love!).  We have a replacement mirror but forgot the additional screw/nut part that is needed.  He will try to put a "knock off" on.

Now for the rest of the story . . .  First day out of Saigon, we were behind miles of backed-up traffic.  It was wet and rainy and the road was basically "under construction" and what we like to call totally gone to “****”.   Harrison had gone on ahead and I was riding with Helge and Frank.  After finally passing miles of traffic ,we were headed up the hill when I hit a chuck hole that could swallow a Volkswagen.  My skid plate hit and my front tire went sideways and threw me down.  Helge and Frank were there in a flash and picked my bike up before you could blink.  I was unscathed (there's a reason for wearing full riding gear and a proper helmet) but my left pannier was toast.

When we arrived in Nhatrang we took the pannier to a body shop, and the next morning they magically appeared in the lobby "good as new".

Now, I have promised my loyal guides (especially Helge) that my panniers have learned their lessons and will be intact for the remainder of their journey (me too!).

Debbie Christian

After a lengthy consultation, the resulting decision - "No problem!".

And, as you can see, it really was "no problem", the repaired pannier looks as good as new!

Day 23 - Luang Prabang, Laos - Helge Pedersen

I met Chi on a trail during a hike through her village south of Sapa, in northern Vietnam. She was sitting with a friend outside her house. I asked if I could take their pictures, and that is where our friendship started.
With perfect English, this 13 year-old girl was curious and charming. She loved to look at the pictures I had taken during our tour here the previous year, as I was now handing out prints as gifts to people in the village who I had photographed the previous year. It was then I had the idea that perhaps this young girl would like to try my camera.

After a crash course in the use of my Canon 5d MKII digital camera, with a 35mm F1.4 lens, Chi went out into the village taking pictures. The group was eating lunch at the home of a Hill Tribe family while this was going on, and in between shoots, she would come back to show what she had captured.

When it was time to part, Chi and I agreed to meet at our hotel in Sapa the next day at 9AM. We spent all that following morning walking the Saturday street market of Sapa, taking pictures and meeting friends of Chi.

From the very first pictures she took, I could see her talent and her joy of working with the camera. When I asked why she took her first pictures of her girlfriends in the rice field, she responded that she loves nature and the color of the rice field.

The following pictures are pictures taken by Chi, and I will take these and many other pictures which she took and put them together in a book that I will bring to her the next time we return to Sapa. But to make the wait a little easier for her, I will attempt to send her a copy and hope that it makes it to her village in northern Vietnam.

Helge P.

Helge Pedersen - Images from Vietnam & Lao

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