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Ekke writes:

After Monday evening's tearful goodbye and a night spent in a large, empty hotel room at the Mercure it felt good, if strange to get on the road again.  I made sure Audrey's bike was securely stored and her helmet and other motorcycle gear was safely packed away at the hotel's luggage storage and then hit the road on Tuesday, February 12.  In order to be at the border with Vietnam to meet Tuyen, of Voyage Vietnam, on the 14th I had to put in a couple of pretty good riding days.  First I backtracked north, past Vang Vieng to Phoukhoun before turning east.  Leaving Vientiane it became immediately apparent that riding would be completely different for the next few weeks.  Slicing through traffic was easier as I didn't need to ride for two bikes, I could flow through gaps that closed right behind me and not worry about losing Audrey.  Out of the city my mirrors were empty; the comforting glow of the F650's headlight missing.  North of Vang Vieng I climbed into the hills and the road twisted along the hilltops, going from village to village.  It was fun but slow riding with convoys of Chinese cars (that is, cars with Chinese licence plates) providing some entertainment value.  Were these Chinese tourists visiting Laos during the Lunar New Year holidays?  Turning east there were fewer of the convoys and the empty road invited some spirited riding.  I arrived in Phonsavan late in the afternoon, going straight to the Vansana Plain of Jars hotel where an e-mail response before I left Vientiane said they would have room for me.  They did, and after dragging my stuff the length of the hotel (they gave me a room at the far end) I freshened up and had dinner.  A large table with twenty Chinese tourists made for a lively evening as I enjoyed pumpkin soup and Lao lap (the national dish of Laos, a kind of spicy minced meat salad) with steamed rice.

Audrey's bike tucked away at the Mercure Hotel in Vientiane

Does anyone else think that having a beer company sponsor road signs is a bad idea?

Great riding in the hills

In the morning I knew I had a fair distance to go but I couldn't come to Phonsavan and not see the famous Plain of Jars.  There are thousands of megalithic stone jars scattered around the plains near Phonsavan and I went to Site 1, the closest site.  The damage inflicted by American bombs during the Vietnam War appeared to be relatively minimal, one just had to pay attention to the marker stones that indicated where it was safe to walk, hopefully not encountering unexploded ordinance.  The large stone jars appear to have been used as part of prehistoric burial practices.  After my short visit, I rode up out of the plains and back into the nearby hills.  Again the road followed the hilltops where the villages were located.  This was quite different from the roads through the mountains at home or in Europe where the roads and villages were in the valleys with only the occasional road over a pass.  It was quite cool at the higher elevations with only 14 degrees showing on the thermometer when I was at 1,500 metres.  But working the gearbox between 2nd and 3rd gear for most of the day kept me warm.  A small village had a couple of tanker trucks parked in front of a restaurant so I stopped for lunch.  I thought I ordered fried rice with egg but I received fried rice with little bits of mystery meat, gristle and bone instead.  Still, at 15,000 kip ($2) for lunch you can't complain too much and then the proprietor gave me a bunch of bananas when I left.  The road got a little worse in the afternoon and it was slow going dodging the potholes.  A delay on a steeply cambered curve where a truck had lost its load meant that I didn't arrive in Vieng Xai until late in the afternoon, looking for a place to stay.  I rode around town looking for guesthouses mentioned in Lonely Planet but the nicest sounding place was under renovation.  Riding up and down the two main streets I did find some of the caves where the Pathet Lao lived during the Vietnam War.  Up to 23,000 people lived in these caves to hide from the American bombardment and the caves held everything from bakeries to a theatre.  I eventually chose what looked like the nicest of the guesthouses and got a small, clean cabin for what I thought she said was 20,000 kip ($3), certainly a good price if it was true.  I appeared to be the only person at the guesthouse as I sat by myself in the chilly outdoor restaurant.  This time I received an egg with my fried rice and didn't have to pick out gristle and bones.  I read up on the Vietnamese border crossing in LP and was encouraged to read, "This remote, seldom-used and often difficult border is an adventurer's delight."

Plain of Jars near Phonsavan

The largest of the jars

The road east winds up into the hills past stilted houses

The villages are up on top of the ridges as opposed to down in the valleys

Really?  I didn't see any sliders though.

Curious locals inspect a horizontally opposed twin cylinder engine

Lunch break at a roadside restaurant

At breakfast I thought I would order something simple so that I could get on the road quickly and make it to the border in time to meet Tuyen.  Boiled eggs sounded quick and easy.  A few minutes after ordering the boiled eggs I heard a scooter fire up and then I saw the proprietor zip out of the hotel to return after a short while carrying a plastic bag.  While I waited patiently for the eggs to arrive (a six minute egg shouldn't take too long should it?) I hoped that I would also get some bread to go with the eggs.  Half an hour later five boiled eggs arrived at my table but no bread.  Well, I guess there will be lots of protein for the day.  The total cost for my stay was 95,000 kip ($13), including dinner and breakfast so I must have misheard the 20,000 kip quote the previous day.  It was really 70,000 which still isn't a bad deal.  The ride along the hills towards Vietnam was 58 kilometres long and consisted mostly of 2nd and 3rd gear corners again so it took about 1.5 hours to reach the border.  Because this is quite an isolated border post I was the only one there and it was easy to take the time to explain the carnet de passage and how it should be stamped.  After twenty minutes I was released into no-man's land and rode to the Vietnamese side of the border.  

Rice paddies below

Heavy jungle as I ride east towards the border with Vietnam

I assumed that the only person standing at the border was Tuyen, my guide for the next couple of weeks, and sure enough it was.  We went in together to the customs office and got to work on the paper work to enter the bike into Vietnam.  Getting my own passport stamped was easy but as usual the bike was a bit more complicated.  Eventually, with Tuyen's help, they got it all figured out and we were free to go.  It was slow riding as the road was really quite rough and I was in 1st and 2nd gear riding behind Tuyen's tiny scooter.  As the Tet celebrations (Lunar New Year) were still impacting local businesses, most shops and restaurants were closed and it wasn't possible to have lunch.  Good thing I had five eggs for breakfast.  Tuyen had planned ahead and brought along a few sesame and rice crackers for just this occasion.  Vietnam seemed to be ahead of Laos for rice planting and as we rode along we saw rice paddies filled with water and a few green sprouts.  This made missing Audrey even harder since I remembered her talking about rice paddies and how she was looking forward to seeing them in Vietnam.  I knew that she would have loved this ride.  At 4:30, after about 150 kilometres, we pulled into Mai Chau and rode past the rice paddies to our home stay.  There, a large one room building on stilts awaited us.  The room had a bamboo floor and through the cracks I could see the bikes below.  A couple of mattresses were laid out with mosquito nets spread over them.  I took a quick shower and then Tuyen and I walked down to the rice paddies via a set of souvenir stalls.  Mai Chau is a popular tourist destination for both foreign and Vietnamese tourists as it is close enough to Hanoi to make a weekend getaway.  Out in the fields were tens of workers from the local villages planting rice.  It looked like back breaking work.  At the home stay a dinner of fish, caviar, fried pork rolls and kale was served and, as was customary, we toasted the host with a shot of sake.  In the evening a folk show across the street provided the entertainment and then I got the global roaming cell phone fired up to call Audrey.  She had arrived safely in Calgary and while the insurance-provided business class was fantastic she was sick during the flight and couldn't really enjoy it.

At the Vietnamese border post, official hats wait for officials

It's a rough road for the first few kilometres in Vietnam following Tuyen on his scooter

Thank goodness we didn't need to take this swaying suspension bridge

Looks like back breaking work, planting rice fields

Arriving at the home stay in Mai Chau


A stroll before dinner, Hanoi is on the other side of the mountains

Dinner at the home stay

Good morning Vietnam!  Over breakfast of noodle soup with an egg stirred in, Tuyen mentioned that once we crossed the mountain range between Mai Chau and Hanoi it would get more "humid."  Sure enough, after stopping at the top of the ridge and looking back on the rice fields in the valley of Mai Chau, it did get damp with a heavy mist.  Not enough to require rain gear, especially as the R1200GS Adventure has pretty good weather protection as is.  While the roads heading into Hanoi were better than the road coming from the border the day before, the traffic was much heavier.  Oncoming traffic didn't hesitate to pass even if they saw us and a few times we were forced onto the shoulder.  Vietnamese traffic was certainly more aggressive than laidback Lao traffic.  As we got closer to Hanoi, Tuyen took us on some quiet secondary roads for a truly nice ride.  The limestone cliffs in the mist were simply beautiful.  Once we got to Hanoi the calm of the country deserted us and we sliced and diced with the scooters in the heavy traffic to the Voyage Vietnam office.  We arrived fairly wet as the heavy mist had turned into a light rain. The hotel originally planned for Hanoi, near the office, was not able to provide secure parking for my motorcycle so another hotel was found.  Going there it appeared that the secure parking was in the lobby, up a set of high steps.  Once the hotel staff saw the Adventure they seemed to have second thoughts on the possibility of getting the bike up into the lobby.  Tuyen and I went for lunch while they pondered possible parking options.  Calgary has a lot of Vietnamese restaurants so when we went to a restaurant in Hanoi I was immediately greeted with fairly familiar food.  I didn't see my favourite though, the #25 on the menu at Pho Pasteur Saigon.  After lunch I said goodbye to Tuyen, as I would be on my own for the weekend on a boat tour of Ha Long Bay, and then went for a walk around the old town.  It was quite interesting to cross the busier streets and it took a little practice to be able to do it like a local.  It seemed the best strategy was to have a quick glance at the oncoming traffic to make sure there weren't any buses or cement trucks coming and then slowly cross the street.  The scooters flowed right around you.  While it was unnerving it seemed to work well enough.  Back at the hotel the staff insisted that it wasn't safe to leave the motorcycle parked on the sidewalk overnight and they told me to come down after 10:00 PM to move it into the lobby.  I came down at 10:00, the big glass doors were opened and they put down some small ramps to ride the bike up.  Discretion being the better part of valour I decided not to ride up (with visions of losing my balance and falling through the doors) but rather to walk beside the bike and slip the clutch.  It worked!  Unfortunately the dirty, wet roads from the day's ride meant that the bike was filthy and didn't grace their lobby as nicely as I had hoped.

Tuyen tries out the Adventure

Looking back down at Mai Chau

Riding quiet country roads near Hanoi

Secure parking

I packed up my luggage and a bag of laundry on Saturday morning and dropped it off at the front desk, then waited for the mini-bus to take me to the Ha Long Bay cruise.  The Adventure looked secure in their lobby (as long as no-one tried sitting on it) and would remain there until I left Hanoi next week Tuesday.  At 8:30 the mini-bus, already mostly full, came by and I jammed myself into a seat near a few Aussies who had partied a bit too hard the previous evening.  They spent the four hour bus ride passing a puke bag back and forth.  Four hours is a long time to spend with my knees jammed into the seat in front and I was happy when we stopped at a tourist trap for souvenirs.  At 12:30 we arrived at the port and we were ferried to the cruise ship at 1:00.  The cabin was very nice, even including a tiny, private balcony.  There was a delay in our departure as apparently the captain was unable to file the necessary forms over the internet but eventually we headed out into the misty bay.  There wasn't much to see because of the mist and fog but it was a relaxing ride nonetheless.  At a bay amongst one of the thousands of islands there were a lot of overnight cruise ships parked (anchored would probably be the nautical term) and we found a spot as well.  Then we took the tender to a floating town and hopped into kayaks to paddle around the bay.  As I was the odd man out I got to paddle with our guide and, unlike Audrey on other kayaking trips I could mention, he didn't jump out.  Dinner back on the boat and then it was time to mingle with the ten or twelve other guests before calling it an early night and sitting on the upper deck.

Home for the next couple of days; Imperial Cruiser

Nice little cabin with a balcony

Arriving at the overnight stop there are already a few kayaks out

We pick up our kayaks at the floating village

Looking back at the floating village

Paddling with the guide

An evening in Ha Long Bay

The original plan was to have visited a big cave in one of the limestone cliffs on Saturday but as we were delayed leaving port we had to have an early breakfast to squeeze it into Sunday morning.  The Hang Sung Sot cave was large and our guide used a laser pointer to show us various people and animals in the rocks.  The best part though was when we exited the cave mouth and found ourselves high up above the bay.  What a fantastic view.  Back on the boat we checked out of our rooms and then sailed over to meet another boat.  Here passengers that were on the three day cruise transferred to the other boat and other people came aboard our vessel.  When the new people were settled we had a cooking class.  Well, cooking class is a bit of an exaggeration.  Basically the guide had the ingredients for spring rolls and then showed us how to wet the rice paper, spoon the filling on and roll them up.  We then had the opportunity to assemble our own spring roll and the instructor deep fried them.  The best part of all that hard labour was that then we got to enjoy the delicious morsels that we had made "ourselves."  We enjoyed a little free time after the cooking class as the ship started cruising back to port.  When we were called for lunch I had lost my seat mates from the previous day and was placed with a threesome of French passengers.  After a brief "hello" they then ignored me for the rest of the time, conversing purely in French amongst themselves and occasionally grunting approval if I asked to have a plate of food passed over.  It really felt rather rude and I made a note to myself that if I'm in a similar group situation I would try to be as inclusive as possible.  Back at the Ha Long Bay port we all jammed into another minibus for the 3:30 hour long bus ride back.  It was really rather unpleasant being stuffed into a seat, unable to move, watching the scenery glide by.  I much prefer motorcycle travel to bus travel.  The bike was still in the lobby and looked as incongruous as ever.  The motorcycle clothes looked great after the laundry, now I just needed to wash the bike to match.  I walked over to Joma Café (the same Canadian owners as the Joma in Vientiane) for a BLT with pumpkin soup.

Hang Sung Sot cave

Fantastic view from the cave's mouth

Cooking class; spring rolls

Enjoying the fruits of my labour

On Monday morning I walked over to the Voyage Vietnam office and met Tuyen.  After a cup of tea we walked to a nearby bank so that I could use MasterCard to pay for the tour.  They weren't able to do a MasterCard transaction so sent us to another bank.  That bank spent quite some time trying to make it all work but in the end the system just wasn't working so we had to go a third bank.  At the third bank I was told that they couldn't process the MasterCard because the new card (sent out to us in Chiang Mai, Thailand) didn't have a bank name on it so I ended up using Visa and that worked.  Because it was a cash advance, interest would be charged from the moment it was withdrawn.  Back at the Voyage Vietnam office I met up with Tan for a city tour on the back of a Royal Enfield motorcycle.  I got a Harley Davidson pudding bowl helmet and jumped on the back.  Tan is a great rider and the Enfield is actually quite roomy so it was an enjoyable ride to the Temple of Literature, dedicated to Confucianism.  The temple was constructed in 1070 and people come to pray and make wishes at statues of various instructors.  After the temple we got back on the bike and took a tour around West Lake, ending up at the Voyage Vietnam office for lunch at a nearby restaurant.  I wanted to see a museum about the American War so Tan took me to the War Museum after lunch but it was still closed because of Tet and it was the same for the Military Museum.  A third museum was also closed but out front they had a few artefacts from the war, including a B52 bomber shot down over Hanoi.  It was interesting to read the plaques describing the imperialist, evil Americans and the brave defenders of Hanoi.  Certainly a different perspective from the one I grew up with in Canada.

The last time I wore a "pudding bowl helmet" I was five years old (and it didn't say Harley Davidson on it)

Tan shows off the damp Royal Enfield in front of the Ho Chi Minh monument

Temple of Literature

Riding around West Lake and back to the Voyage Vietnam office

A change of helmet for the afternoon's ride (Tan's a great rider, super smooth)

Remains of a B52 shot down over Hanoi

The Mig-21 that shot down a number of enemy planes

The museum grounds being cleaned up after Tet

We stop off at a spot where the undercarriage of a B52 landed in a Hanoi neighbourhood

A final Joma stop: Tea, Nanaimo bar, wi-fi.  Life's good.

On Tuesday morning I managed to get the bike out of the hotel lobby without damaging anything and rode over to the Voyage Vietnam office to meet Tuyen for a coffee before we headed south.  I mentioned that I would like to give the Royal Enfield a try and Tuyen let me take one around the block.  It was an interesting bike to ride, at least at the low speeds of the congested streets of Old Hanoi.  With its relaxed engine and roomy riding position it might make a neat bike to ride around the world though we would need to pack a bit lighter and perhaps take along more tools and spare parts.  As it was raining lightly I put my rain gear on as I mounted my thoroughly modern BMW and we left Hanoi.  Well, easier said than done as even Tuyen, a local, got a little turned around in the big city and I received an extra tour, stopping beside a very tall pagoda before getting directions to the highway.  I found Hanoi one of the easiest big cities to ride in once I got accustomed to going with the prevailing scooter flow.  While it looked like absolute chaos from the sidewalk, once riding in the traffic it was, if not orderly, at least not indecipherable.  Out on the country roads that Tuyen led us to, the traffic eased up and it was enjoyable riding near lovely, mist-shrouded cliffs.  We had to stop a few times to remove the rain gear and then put it on again a little while later.  At our coffee and lunch stops locals always seemed stunned by both the big motorcycle and my relative height, coming over and standing beside me as if I was some kind of human measuring stick.  As we got closer to Vinh we had to rejoin Highway 1 and the traffic was much heavier.  Oncoming traffic, especially the long distance buses, would pull out to pass, pushing us onto the shoulder quite frequently.  In this respect, riding with Tuyen who had now switched to a 125cc Honda from the scooter with which he picked me up at the border, was better than being on my own.  He rode more like a scooter so our speeds were lower and we were usually over near the shoulder anyway.  Just as we pulled off Highway 1 the little Honda sputtered and Tuyen coasted to the side of the road.  It seemed like it was either out of gas or perhaps the electrical system was damp from the day's rain.  With a bit of coaxing the little bike got going again and we rolled into Vinh as dusk fell.  It took a little riding around until we found the Media hotel.  This three star hotel really reminded me of the hotels in China; the shower leaked water all over the bathroom, there were bare wires sticking out of the walls, the beds were rock hard and the room had been fumigated to within a millimetre of its life. In another comparison with the China tour, I found that I still didn't enjoy riding behind a tour leader as much as riding on my own, but it was indeed much better riding behind a motorcycle as opposed to Geordie's pickup truck.  While decision making was taken away (when to stop for rain gear, where to stay tonight, where is the next gas station) and hence some of the "adventure" it was almost like taking a vacation.  Following Tuyen on the motorcycle was much easier as we could split lanes through traffic when needed and we could ride on the shoulder when getting passed.  It also seemed better somehow knowing that the guide was experiencing the same environmental conditions as me; if I was wet and cold then so was he.  After a long, dusty, hot day of riding in China it was sometimes frustrating to see Geordie and Frank bounce out of their air conditioned truck fresh as daisies.

Wheeling the Adventure out of the Camellia Hotel lobby

Crossing the street is easy.  Just focus on the other side and walk slowly across.  The scooters flow around you.

Taking an Enfield for a spin around the block

Leaving Hanoi in the mist

These chairs are just way too small

After a typical Asian breakfast we put our rain gear on for the ride to Ho Chi Minh's home.  This is where Ho Chi Minh grew up, in a modest bamboo and wood house.  There were some of Ho Chi Minh's sayings sprinkled around the grounds like, "Nothing is more valuable than independence and freedom."  Tuyen lit an incense candle for me so that I could make a wish at one of the altars.  I wished for world peace.  After getting all sweaty walking around in full motorcycle clothes and rain gear we rode for a few kilometres before joining up with the Ho Chi Minh Highway to continue our journey south.  I found it interesting that the Ho Chi Minh Highway had a yellow centre line.  It was the only road in the whole country (and perhaps S.E. Asia) to have the yellow line.  As a North American, where we always have yellow centre lines, I was happy to see it.  In Huong Khe we stopped for lunch of noodles and beef and fried rice.  As this was an all-inclusive tour Tuyen paid for all the meals and that made for a nice vacation too, not having to worry about money.  I only had to pay for gas and incidentals.  With the steely grey skies we left our rain gear on, especially as our route took us over a mountain pass.  The road was a lot of fun as it twisted up and down the hills.  On the other side of the pass Tuyen suddenly pulled over.  The Honda's chain had fallen off.  We spent a little while putting it back on but a few metres down the road it fell off again.  It seemed to be very worn out and there was a sound like the wheel bearings were shot as the sprocket wobbled on the axle.  The remainder of the ride to Phong Nha was done at 30 kilometres per hour, stopping every now and again to reinstall the chain, and we arrived at 5:30 PM.  Too late to go to the famous, UNESCO Heritage listed Phong Nha cave so we would have to go first thing Thursday morning.  Tuyen went in search of a new chain (and perhaps sprockets and wheel bearings) while I took a bit of a lie down, feeling like I had a touch of a cold or the flu.  Over dinner of vegetable fried rice Tuyen said that he would get a new chain installed in the morning while we took a boat ride into the cave.

Ho Chi Minh's modest childhood home

Making a wish at Ho Chi Minh's statue

School's out on a rainy day

Milestone marker on the Ho Chi Minh Highway

The chain falls off Tuyen's Honda

Slow riding means it is easier to take pictures of the wonderful scenery that we pass through

This looks like it would have made a good runway during the American War


February 21 Tuyen dropped his bike off to get a new chain installed and then we walked over to the boat docks where we found a small group of tourists from Saigon ready to board a boat.  They were happy to share the costs and we jumped aboard.  It took half an hour in the motorboat to go up the slow moving river to the cave's mouth.  At that point the motor was turned off and the crew started paddling into the darkness.  It is a large cavern but we only went in about 600 metres before sliding the boat up onto a sandy beach.  A small opening led into the remainder of the 7.5 kilometre long cave but it was only accessible by kayak from that point on.  We walked around the lit cavern and then back to the boat for a short trip back downstream to another beach.  Here we were let off and allowed to wander through the cave and exit at another point, near where the boat had entered the cave.  We had only seen a small portion of the cave network but I imagine that exploring the further reaches of the cave by kayak would be quite exciting.  We needed to get riding though as it was still a couple of hundred kilometres to Hue and it was already past 11:00 AM.  As we rode towards the coast, again Tuyen pulled over suddenly.  I thought that the new chain would have fixed the bike but that wasn't the reason he had stopped.  In Calgary I have a favourite Vietnamese dish and I hadn't found it in Vietnam yet.  I had explained what the dish was to Tuyen, and with the help of a photo that Audrey had taken of the menu in Calgary, he knew what to look for.  He had seen a restaurant advertising "Bun Cha" and that's why he had stopped suddenly.  The BBQ pork and noodles tasted a bit different compared to the dish at Pho Pasteur Saigon but still tasty.  60 kilometres after the lunch stop we took some small roads to get to the Vinh Moc tunnels.  In these tunnels near the Demilitarized Zone hundreds of people had hidden and lived their lives during the American War.  Tuyen handed me over to a local tour guide and we entered the network of tunnels.  The tunnels were obviously not made with Dutch people in mind as they were mostly 1.6 metres high with the largest "room" being 1.9 metres tall.  It was uncomfortable for me doing the tour but imagining what it must have been like to live down here with B52s dropping bombs brought home how arduous it must have been.  The maternity "room" was nothing but a small niche dug out of the side of a tunnel.  17 babies had been born here during the war.  It was a short ride to the DMZ, the 17th parallel that divided North and South Vietnam where Tuyen gave another brief lesson on the history of Vietnam.  He really was quite knowledgeable and able to impart the information in an easy to absorb manner.  As we had a fairly late start it was after dark when we arrived in Hue.  Night riding in Vietnam was no fun at all as oncoming vehicles typically ran their high beams and continued to pass even if there was oncoming traffic, forcing us onto the shoulder where pedestrians and bicycles didn't have any reflectors, never mind lights.  After checking in at the Ideal Hotel we walked over to the DMZ restaurant for a bacon cheeseburger.

Phong Nha is almost as pedestrian friendly as Ulaanbaatar

Entering the Phong Nha cave we shut off the motor and paddle into the darkness

Beached up inside the cave, to go any further and you'll need a kayak and a light

Entrance to Vinh Moc tunnels

Not made for Dutch people

Riding along the coast a short distance to the Demilitarized Zone

The Demilitarized Zone that separated North and South Vietnam

On Friday Tuyen and I jumped in a cab to the ancient Imperial City from the time that Hue was the capital of Vietnam.  Inside the walled structure, known as the citadel, was the Purple Forbidden City where the Nguyen imperial family lived.  It had a plan very similar to the Forbidden City in Beijing but during the Tet Offensive in 1968 when the North Vietnamese launched a major attack to capture Hue, 150 of the 160 buildings in the Imperial City were destroyed.  Ongoing restoration was visible as we walked around the site with scaffolding up around some buildings and painting going on in others.  From the Imperial City we walked over to a market and when I saw that there was an entire road fronted by barber shops I couldn't resist the urge for a haircut.  50,000 dong later I was nicely trimmed and when Tuyen saw what a nice job was done with me he went under the knife as well.  Both all spiffed up we took the afternoon off and then met for dinner at 6:30 after which we went on a boat cruise of the Perfume River.  Well it wasn't much of a cruise as the boat left the dock and then went upstream about 100 metres before dropping anchor.  Then a small band started playing traditional music and five women performed traditional folk songs.  The truly traditional tunes were very similar to Chinese opera in that the sound was similar to stepping on the tails of five cats at once.  Fortunately a few more modern tunes crept into their repertoire and these were much more pleasant to listen to.  Just as we returned to dock a very heavy downpour started and just as abruptly ended, leaving the streets soaking wet but us relatively dry, scampering back to the hotel.

Entering the Imperial City

One of the gates to the Purple Forbidden City

Ongoing restoration work

The theatre

A Huey helicopter captured during the Spring Campaign of 1975

It's interesting seeing the other side of the American War


Checking out the market

Hey, a helmet to match the iPhone!

Haircut time

The five ladies singing traditional songs on the cruise

While it rained some more overnight by the time we had finished breakfast it had let up and we didn't need to don our wet weather gear.  Leaving Hue by small country roads was relaxing and we stopped at a small village where the entire GDP of the village looked like it was spent on building funerary monuments.  Each grave in the cemetery seemed to be bigger and more elaborate than the last.  Speaking of money, while this was an all-inclusive tour I still needed to pay for gas.  I stopped at a couple of ATMs but both of them showed a Windows "Blue Screen of Death" so Tuyen spotted me half a million dong at our next gas stop where my bike took 800,000 dong (about $40).  After the fill up we left town and turned off the main road, which entered a tunnel a bit further on.  Instead of going into the tunnel, we climbed over the mountain, on the road made famous in the Top Gear Vietnam Special.  The reason the road is so good is because most of the through-traffic bypasses the mountain road in favour of the tunnel, leaving only the tourists and tanker trucks (not permitted in the tunnel) on the curvy road.  While Jeremy Clarkson declared the road one of the best coast roads in the world I can't quite agree.  It is a lovely road alright and the sparse traffic makes it quite enjoyable but best in the world?  I don't think so; how about the coast road in northern California near Petrolia?  Or Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia?  Or Chapman's Peak Drive near Cape Town?  Or the Atlantic Highway in Norway?  I think that Jeremy was having so much fun on his scooter that his judgement may have been addled.  We stopped at a beautiful stretch of beach in Da Nang but it was still a bit too early in the season to fully enjoy the beach time.  In Hoi An, after checking into our hotel, I popped around the corner and was fitted for a custom suit.  $150 for a custom made suit is quite a deal and they were fast, saying to drop by at 9:30 PM for a test fitting.  Tuyen and I walked around Hoi An, which would have been much nicer if it wasn't pouring rain.  Still, watching the candles float down the canal was quite pretty.  At the tailor the suit fit quite well and just needed a couple of minor adjustments to be perfect.  They said to come back at 9:30 AM the next day for a final fitting and then to ship it home to Canada.

Cemetery of a small village is incredible for its over the top funerary monuments

Water buffalo in their natural habitat

And at work

Starting the ascent of the pass made famous in Top Gear with a beautiful view of the town below

The road curves and twists through the fog

At the top of the pass

Enormous!

Quality beach time

The security guard at the hotel in Hoi An is dwarfed by the Adventure

Candles floating down the canal in Hoi An

On Sunday morning (did the tailors work all Saturday night?) the custom tailored suit fit perfectly.  The attendant said that I looked quite handsome in it to which I replied, "Is it a magic suit?"  She called the post office and a few minutes later a postal clerk came over, carrying everything necessary to make a nice little package.  They proceeded to fold my new suit into a small parcel and I asked for it to be sent using the cheapest method possible.  They protested saying that it would take three months to arrive back in Canada and I said that I wouldn't need the suit until August when I went back to work.  So 510,000 dong for shipment ($25) added to the cost of the suit and it was still less than an off-the-rack suit at home though I suppose that if I added the cost of getting to Vietnam in the first place it might be more expensive.  Back at the hotel we packed the bikes in the rain and headed off at about 10:30.  We took small country roads for 110 kilometres until we reached the Ho Chi Minh Highway (love that yellow centre line) and turned south once again.  The rain had been quite steady all day and it was a great relief to cross a mountain range late in the afternoon and get out of the incessant dampness.  Why is it that a motorcycle suit that costs more than a new Vietnamese scooter can't keep me dry?  After a couple of hours of riding our wet gear had dried out and we arrived in Ngoc Hoi at the BMC hotel.  I opened the saddlebags and the left side had a few hundred millilitres of water while the right side bag contents were merely damp so the evening was spent drying everything out.

A magic suit

Another damp ride

February 25: Audrey's birthday.  This was the first time since we had known each other (1987) that we weren't together on one of our birthdays.  Using Skype I gave her a call as she was visiting my parents at lunch time in Airdrie enjoying a delicious homemade cake.  It sounded like she was doing well and all the tests performed on her looked OK so that she would be able to rejoin our tour soon enough.  In a way it was nice for Audrey to be home when her Mom was moving to a new place so she was able to help out.  We hadn't planned to ride a great distance on Monday so we had lots of time to stop and see things.  A beautiful day greeted us as we rode a short distance to the only wooden church in all of Vietnam.  It really reminded me of the stave churches of Norway but only in that it was made of wood, not in its design.  Nearby, a traditional meeting house stood with its characteristic tall, steep roof and on stilts.  While the original building had been burned down in 2006 the new structure from 2011 was now used for meetings of the local communist party.  We didn't have to ride very far to a restaurant that had the best BBQ chicken in all of Vietnam; yummy.  In the afternoon Tuyen pulled off the road and down a dirt path into a suspiciously artificial forest.  Rubber trees.  Tuyen explained how the rubber is harvested twice a year.  All I could think of was that it flows out just like maple syrup in Quebec, yummy.  At about 3:00 we went to a large hydro-electric dam in the hopes of getting a tour of the facility but Tuyen was told that the place was closed for maintenance and we couldn't have a tour.  A few minutes later, as we were enjoying a cold beverage, a bus pulled into the parking lot.  Apparently the plant wasn't closed for maintenance anymore and they could get a tour and we were able to join them.  We hopped on the bus and drove across the dam and down the valley on the other side.  Four large turbines whirred away underground, generating up to 720 Megawatts. While this was the largest generator in Vietnam it was soon to be eclipsed as another, larger facility was being built north of Hanoi.  It was a short ride to Pleiku and the final night of the tour.  Over dinner Tuyen and I talked about the tour.  I told him that the tour certainly met all of my expectations and I really liked following a motorcycle much more than following a car.  (If you're thinking of riding in Vietnam check out their website at http://www.voyagevietnam.net/eng/)  That evening I prepared for entering Cambodia by checking my paperwork, making sure I had a passport photo handy, had enough U.S. dollars on hand to purchase the visa and learning how to say hello and thank you in Khmer.

Audrey at my parent's house with her birthday cake

The only wooden church in all of Vietnam

Traditional meeting hall, now used for communist party meetings.  Easier to back down the steps cut into a huge log.

Maple syrup in Vietnam?  Nope, rubber trees.

What could have been a romantic dinner on Audrey's birthday in Pleiku

Since breakfast wasn't included at the hotel we stopped off at a roadside stand on the way out of Pleiku for a Vietnamese sub.  A baguette with a delicious filling and a couple of fried eggs on top along with a Vietnamese coffee was a great start to the day, better than some of the buffets we had had.  As we rode west on a fairly new road to the border Tuyen pulled over at a coffee plantation.  Some of the best coffee in Vietnam was grown in these hills west of Pleiku.  I didn't recognise any coffee beans on the trees so maybe it wasn't in season when we were there.  We arrived at the border at 10:00 AM and the paperwork to exit Vietnam was done quite expediently.  It looked like these customs officials had seen a carnet de passages before.  With a big hug I said goodbye to Tuyen (how different it must have been for him to lead a tour "group" of one, non-drinking rider!) and then rode into no-man's land.

I was a little concerned that the roads in Cambodia would be very rough and it would take some time to ride across the country back to Thailand to await Audrey's return.  The rough dirt path between the two border stations didn't inspire any confidence in my ability to make good time.  I got the visa for Cambodia at the border after filling out a form and handing over $20 U.S.  I then took my passport with its fresh visa to the passport office next door for a stamp before heading to the customs shack to explain the carnet de passage.  It didn't take too long, with a little guidance from me, to figure it out and get me on my way.  As there wasn't a currency exchange office at the border I stuffed my dong back into my pants and rode off.  Once out of the border zone the road was fantastic.  I couldn't believe my eyes, decent pavement and almost no traffic meant that I could ride at 100 kph without any trouble.  I stopped at a small town bank to see if I could exchange Vietnamese dong for Cambodian riel but was told that they didn't do that, however I could go to the market in the centre of town and find someone who could do the exchange.  I didn't want to waste time wandering around the market (especially in full motorcycle gear now that it had warmed up to 38 degrees) so got back on the fantastic road and did the 200 kilometres from the border to the intersection with National Highway 7 in a tick over two hours.  I had planned to go to Stung Treng that evening but with the excellent time I had made from the border I thought I might be able to make it to Kratie.  I pulled out the iPad and did a little research at the side of the road as a crowd of kids gathered around.  As I opened the Lonely Planet guidebook I could hear "murmur, murmur, iPad, murmur…"  LP said that Kratie had a few tourist facilities so I hoped that the road would be as good as the road from the border and headed south.  There were stretches of broken tarmac and there was a bit more traffic but I made the 120 kilometres to Kratie well before dark.  I rode around town, looking at the places mentioned in LP, but since LP is oriented more to the backpacker crowd it isn't as concerned with secure motorcycle parking as I am.  The You Hong guesthouse was on a busy, narrow street in the centre of town with no parking visible so I went back to a large hotel I had spotted near the Mekong River.  The Santepheap had a large parking area surrounded by a wall that looked secure so I went in to check it out.  $15 for an air conditioned room sounded reasonable and as it was 39 degrees out I didn't bother asking how much a fan-only room was.  Yes, the price was in U.S. dollars.  Conveniently that's all the ATMs would spit out, no riel.  After cooling off a bit in the room I took a walk and found that the You Hong Guesthouse had a nice restaurant.  It had easily the best spaghetti Bolognese in S.E. Asia and a great smoothie to boot.  I thought I could get to like Cambodia.

Excellent roads in Cambodia mean it is possible to average 100 kph

Though you have to watch for slower moving traffic

Back at the Mekong River

After a $2.50 breakfast at the Santepheap I headed south at 8:00 in the morning.  It was already 28 degrees so I wanted to make some distance before it got too hot.  The road I chose hugged the Mekong River and passed through little villages, each one with an enormous temple.  After about 70 kilometres I turned east on National Highway 6 in the direction of Siem Reap.   The highway was quite a bit busier and passing was a bit more aggressive with the expectation being that I pull over onto the shoulder to avoid getting flattened.  I started to wonder if the problem really was that I was riding my motorcycle like locals drive a car and other drivers were expecting me to be going slowly like a small motorcycle on the shoulder.  That certainly seemed to be the case in Vietnam where following Tuyen on his tiny bike going 70 kph instead of 100 felt safer with oncoming traffic.  Nevertheless, I had no intention of riding along the shoulder at 70, not while expecting to reach Siem Reap in one day, so I just pulled onto the shoulder whenever there was oncoming traffic and stayed on the gas.  I stopped for fuel (the only stop I would need in Cambodia as the Adventure's tank lets me do 700 kilometres between fill ups) and the price on the pump was in U.S. dollars.  $1.25 seemed pretty reasonable and after the attendant topped it up he gave me a complimentary bottle of ice cold water.  Cambodia could really grow on a person.  I arrived at the Frangipani Villa in Siem Reap at about 2:30 and was pleasantly surprised at how nice this boutique hotel was.  Clean and modern with super friendly staff who promptly gave me an ice cold welcome drink.  One thing I had noticed at the Santepheap was the same at the Frangipani; they both had the softest bath towels I had ever used.  Was this a Cambodian thing?  I would have to wait until I returned with Audrey to confirm my theory.  My plan was to get to Bangkok on Thursday, about 460 kilometres and one border crossing away so I made reservations for the Viva Garden Serviced Apartments in Bangkok and did a little research on the route.  I had heard that not only are motorcycles not allowed on the toll highways in Bangkok, they're not even allowed on the expressways.  I couldn't figure out a route that didn't involve at least some expressways so I knew I was going to have to play it by ear tomorrow.

OK, this doesn't look very safe (and see the oncoming scooter being pushed onto the dirt shoulder?)

Scooter transporter

In a way it was a shame to be so close to one of the wonders of the world, Angkor Wat, and yet not go to see it.  I wanted to experience that in its fullness when Audrey returned.  So on Thursday morning I tried to beat the heat and got going at 7:45.  It was already 27 degrees and I did the 150 kilometres to the border before 10:00 AM.  It was easy enough getting out of Cambodia once I had walked back to the customs office for the carnet de passage stamp.  Right beside the passport office was an exchange booth so I thought I would try to get rid of my Vietnamese dong.  No problem.  I rode past the casino in no-man's land (?!?) to the Thai border post where an unofficial looking couple of men were doing all kinds of vehicle paperwork.  They said to get my Thai visa and passport stamp first and then come back to see them.  OK, I picked up the "arrival" card and turned to walk into the passport control office when, with a loud bang, I slammed my head against a low hanging metal sign.  The crowd lined up for passport control all went, "Oh!" in unison so I responded in a loud voice, "Welcome to Thailand!"  It was quite a long queue at the five or six passport booths and it took a long time to get stamped in.  Once back outside the young men took copies of my driver's licence, vehicle registration and passport.  They then filled in some kind of import form that I signed and was sent on my way to the customs office.  There they took all the paperwork I had just done as well as my carnet de passage and a few minutes later came out with the temporary import document.  Overall it took about an hour in the heat to get it all done.  Riding in Thailand on the left was easy to adapt to and soon enough I was zipping along the four-lane divided highways heading to Bangkok.  When I stopped for fuel there was a convenience store directly adjacent to the gas station where I had lunch.  I had missed that in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.  Closer to Bangkok the traffic became busier and of course more aggressive but I was able to hold my own.  The expressway was flowing very quickly without delays underneath the toll highway above.  About 60 kilometres out from Bangkok proper this worked well enough but when I got to within 15 kilometres or so I noticed that the car drivers were being much more aggressive towards me, cutting me off, tailgating or encroaching into my lane.  I realised that there were now frontage roads and all the motorcycles were over there so I worked my way over and by the time I got off the expressway I was pretty close to the turnoff for Sukhumvit Road where the Viva Garden was located.  The frontage road was heavily congested and the width of the saddlebags precluded a lot of lane splitting, even the scooters were stymied and forced to go around obstructing vehicles.  It was 3:15 PM when I pulled into the parking lot of the Viva Garden and after sitting on a hot motorcycle stuck in traffic for the last half hour I must have looked quite bedraggled.  My registration was expedited and soon enough I was in a cool shower and headed down to the swimming pool.  I had put the Kok in Bangkok.

Underneath the tollway entering Bangkok

Home sweet home for the next week

Talking with Audrey we determined that the best thing to do would be for her to fly back to Vientiane.  Her motorcycle was parked at the Mercure (hopefully!) and we could simply resume the trip as soon as she returned.  We arranged a flight for her to Bangkok (via Toronto and Abu Dhabi) and then a separate flight onward to Vientiane.  For some reason if booking directly to Vientiane from Calgary the flight on Expedia was about $1,000 more expensive than two separate flights.  She would arrive on Saturday, March 9 in Vientiane so I would have a week in Bangkok to do a couple of things.  I had the bike serviced at BKK Motorcycles and I also wrote up a full chapter of our website during the week.  Audrey and I discussed where we would like to go after our time in S.E. Asia and since her doctors had said that at high altitude she was at increased risk of blood clots we decided to abandon the idea of returning to Europe via Nepal, India and Pakistan.  We decided to fly to Istanbul and spend some time exploring Turkey and maybe head east as far as Iran before going up Eastern Europe back to Germany.  I contacted a few freight forwarders and started making arrangements for getting the bikes air freighted to Istanbul.

Friday March 8, I said goodbye to the friendly people at the Viva Garden, promising I would be back with my wife in a month or so.  The 8:00 AM traffic was at least going in the other direction so there weren't too many delays in retracing my route from a week ago.  Still it was 31 degrees and it took two hours to ride 90 kilometres in the heat.  A lunch break at a 7-11 when I fueled up provided some air conditioned relief from the heat as did another break in the afternoon for an iced green tea.  I pulled into Khon Kaen at 4:30 and aside from missing one turn when I went under an underpass instead of up to the intersection to make my turn it was fairly easy to find the Centara Hotel where I had made reservations.  Workers were still building the bar by the pool, the hotel was that new, but the pool was OK to use and I plunged in after peeling off my sticky motorcycle clothes.  Ah, blessed relief.

In the morning I checked my e-mail to confirm that Audrey was on her way to Vientiane and found that she had been delayed leaving Toronto.  That meant she missed her connection in Abu Dhabi to Bangkok and consequently would miss her flight from Bangkok to Vientiane.  I called Expedia and was able to change her flight from an 11:45 AM departure out of Bangkok to 7:55 PM then e-mailed her back with the new information.  This gave me some breathing room as well since I had planned to ride the 200 kilometres to Vientiane in the morning and meet her at the airport.  Now I could take my time and wasn't under any pressure when I arrived at the Friendship Bridge between Thailand and Laos.  Leaving Thailand was quick and easy and then crossing the bridge was also nice as there was a toll for all vehicles except motorcycles.  For some reason Laos was a little more difficult, first obtaining the visa upon arrival and then paying the fee, which included an extra dollar for working overtime on Saturday.  When I showed my carnet de passage to the vehicle inspection officers they motioned me to another building where I wandered around until I found an office where a guy was dozing behind his desk.  I knocked loudly to wake him up and then he promptly filled in the appropriate spots on the form.  I returned to the other officers and showed them the carnet and much discussion ensued.  As the discussion was in Lao I didn't understand any of it.  So one of the vehicle inspection officers motioned for me to follow him and led me back to the building where I had the carnet stamped.  I tried to tell him that I had already done that.  Just as we were to enter the office again the officer had a closer look at my carnet.  Then he found the reason for the confusion.  The Thailand portion of the carnet was still attached which is what they had been looking at.  The new page below had been properly filled in by the Lao officer I had roused from his noontime nap.  Now everything was OK for them, but I was a bit concerned that the bike hadn't been properly stamped out of Thailand.  Would this create problems later when re-entering Thailand or when we returned home and tried to get our money back for the carnet? I rode across familiar Vientiane to the Mercure hotel and was delighted to see that Audrey's bike was still there, tucked under its blue cover.  My delight faded somewhat when I tried to check in and was told that my reservation was for exactly one week later, March 16, not March 9.  I pulled out the iPad and was able to pull up my e-mail which showed the confirmation for March 9.  The mistake was theirs and fortunately there was a room available.  I whiled away the afternoon by going to Joma for lunch, working on the website and reading a book all waiting anxiously for 9:05 PM to arrive.  I had arranged for the hotel shuttle to meet Audrey at the airport but decided to ride there myself to greet her as she came off the plane.  What a great reunion!  It was so good to see her, knowing that now we could resume our adventures together.  And the adventure started right away as the hotel shuttle didn't show up.  There were a few options available to us but the one that we chose was for Audrey to ride on the back of my bike while resting her duffle bag on the saddlebag.  Since she had on exactly the same protective gear as the vast majority of scooter riders in Laos (i.e. none) we rode very slowly along the side of the road for the three or four kilometres to the hotel.  Let the rest of the adventure unfold from here.

Leaving Thailand and crossing the Friendship Bridge to Laos

A bonus section!  Here are a few scooter photos I took on the ride:  

Who knew an umbrella would even work on a scooter?


Entering Hanoi

That's got to be pretty heavy

Yes, he's texting on the cell phone





The orange tree after Tet


Fuzzy picture of pigs off to market

Why not?

Bananas anyone?



Scooters are the predominant mode in Vietnam



Cambodia had a few of these travelling salesmen travelling in convoys of three


Yes, Thailand has scooters too


Map of Ekke's route to and through Vietnam  
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