17th April: Lak Sao to Pho Chau – 83km (total 2576km)

The route: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/169308164

The photo:

Border crossing into Vietnam - before we spent an hour bargaining with officials


The chat :

After a market breakfast and some seriously strong shots of Laos coffee, we headed uphill to bid Good Morning to Vietnam (sorry). The ride to the border was uphill the whole way, with the scenery becoming more and more spectacular with every hairpin bend we crawled up. The border itself can, in retrospect, be viewed as an interesting exercise in employing restraint in international relations, but at the time was teeth grinding eye rolling hour of barely suppressed frustration. The reason? Additional “fees” (read corruption charges). The excuses for these demanded charges were variable and entertaining – one official claimed it was because it was 2 days after a bank holiday, another claimed a “stamping fee”. During an hour of polite disagreements interspersed with multiple periods of 20 minutes or so where we waited while border staff broke off negotiations with us to attend to essential browsing of facebook/chatting with colleagues/gazing at spreadsheets/processing Vietnamese and Laos travellers documents for no charge, we finally struck lucky as the border staff capitulated and gave us our passports back without any bribes changing hands.

As we congratulated ourselves on our patience and diplomacy, the entire border staff streamed out of the office heading for a nearby restaurant. Following them in we found 50 border officials tucking into pho and beer – rather than our painstaking negotiations accounting for any bribe abolition, it transpired that the real reason the officials caved in was the call of a 3 course lunch and cold Beer Laos.

We rolled into Vietnam, and then chose the Ho Chi Minh Highway (something of  a misnomer) – a quiet route avoiding the notorious Highway Number 1, and which, we had been promised by a Slovakian motorcyclist, was “lined with guesthouses”. I’m not sure if something got lost in translation and in fact what our Eastern European friend had meant to say was “almost entirely deplete of guesthouses”, but it wasn’t until 90km later that we found the first guesthouse, which made for a slightly anxious afternoon’s riding. Foreign house guests are banned in Vietnam, meaning that an impromptu home stay was out of the question, and it was with considerable relief that we found a hotel as the option of slinging our hammock up beside the highway was not an attractive one. The Ho Chi Minh Highway is an extremely quiet road in good condition but not exactly packed with eating options – on the section we were on there was a small town every 50-100km, but the advantages of this were of course very little traffic, hundreds of excited Vietnamese people shouting hello as we cycled through their villages, kilometres and kilometres of conical hat wearing Vietnamese labouring in rice fields, and a sense that we were off the beaten track.

After reading about the “foodie’s delight” of Vietnamese cuisine, and a staple diet of rather bland noodle soup for the last few weeks, we were excited to sample some Vietnamese street food that evening. Salivating over the prospect of moist steamed pork buns, fresh spring rolls, and spicy northern curries, we were brought smartly back to earth by the reality of gastronomic life in a small Vietnamese town. After picking the most popular of the 3 pho shops in town (i.e. the only one with a customer), we sat down to a meal of stale rice crackers, some rawish chicken entrails/beaks, and a bowl of hot water with the odd bit of sad and ancient looking vegetable floating around in it. By some degree it was the worst meal of our trip so far (and that includes the one that resulted in severe food poisoning), and we headed back to our hotel hoping the meal did not represent a typical Vietnamese eating experience.

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