Part of learning a new country is learning to find food. At the present time there are three types of food establishments that we can recognize: coffee, beer and pho. Yes, I know. One might argue that coffee and beer are not “foods” but the coffee comes with a 1/4 cup of condensed milk which means carbs, protein and Vitamin D, and beer comes with carbs, protein, fun, both useful for riding. And, pho, well….I even impress myself with this one… I read Lonely Planet and actually remembered one food word with my 54 year old brain from the 30 page section of Vietnamese food. (Pho = noodles)
So today, we’d been riding for many hours and our tummies were starting to talk. Between dodging cows, admiring rice paddies, staring at the female road construction crews building the new road one shovelful of rocks at time, and avoiding patches of gravel on the one-wheel track, I was also trying to find a place to eat.
When I spied a familiar brown sign with a white coffee cup and the words coffee underneath, I knew that, at least, we had found some sugar. Eric, for whom hope always springs eternal, is convinced that a coffee shop in Vietnam must have some food somewhere. (They really don’t)
Here’s the conversation/pantomime between Eric and the coffee shop owner.
Eric: Have you got food?
He pantomimes bringing a spoon to his mouth.
Owner: blank stare and brings us two Vietnamese single press coffees dripping in a glass with a layer of sweetened condensed milk at the bottom and a separate glass of ice cubes.
At this point I remembered I ‘d bought a fresh baguette on the ride out of town that was strapped to the back of my bike. I brought it back to the table and tried this conversation:
Me: Can we eat our bread with our coffee?
Owner: nods OK, runs to the house and brings us a dish of sweetened condensed milk and says Vietnamese style.
So we pulled off a hunk of bread and dipped it in the milk….Delicious!
Me: Delicious. We’re hungry.
Owner: Eat. My Family.
She motions us to come inside.
Of course I’m not going to “eat her family” but“with” them sounded good.
And so that’s just what we did. We went in her house. We sat on her family’s bamboo mat and joined her son just home from school, her husband and her and we ate the most delicious chicken, Vietnamese vegetables dipped in a spicy garlic sauce, rice and tea.
I only hope I can turn a coffee into a lunch for some strangers in the future to repay her kindness.
N.B. This should serve as confirmation for Eric that coffee shops DO NOT serve food.
What do you do when your 30 day visa for Vietnam has already begun, but you have 498 kilometers to bike over several tall mountain passes with few or no sketchy guest houses located in between and the weather forecast calls for rain at the top, and you’re just plain ready to move on?
It’s simple. You pay $25 to take a an overnight sleeper bus that looks shiny from the photos at the youth hostel ticket agent.
For the cost of one night at a pretty nice guest house, each rider gets the following: his or her own chair/bed that reclines 10 times farther than the economy seats on a United international flight, free wifi, a bottle of water, a toothbrush, and the use of one flower-print polar-fleece blanket with it’s own unique “eau de backpacker” to remind you why you probably got a job 40 years ago. (Mental note: use some retirement income to buy my own blanket next time).
Eric and I arrived exactly one hour early to load our bicycles and claim our seats. As it turned out, coming early didn’t matter because, even though we were first in line, we got the special “senior citizen” seats located next to the toilet. I’m sure Eric appreciated the proximity, but I wanted to gag from the smell before the 16 hour ride even started.
(For obvious reasons, I never took a sip from my free water.)
The bus left exactly one hour and twenty minutes later than scheduled, which, as it turned out, didn’t really matter because the border between Laos and Vietnam is closed from some time the night before until 7:00 am. Arriving to the border at 3:00 am like our bus did, just meant the we got to take a nap without switchbacks and potholes until 6:30 am.
Just kidding. We WERE all sound asleep including the gentle snores of the French guys behind us, and the occasional throat clearing to cough up lugies (where DO they spit them?) of the Laotians, until one of the Vietnamese passengers who thought he was a rooster and started crowing on his cell phone at 4:30 am woke us all up. Apparently the word “sssssshhhhhh!” is not universal because said “rooster” kept up a steady stream of talking for the next hour. At one point the French guys started played “La (or le, it’s been a long time since French class) Marseilles” on their cell phone. I thought it was funny and started laughing out loud. I contemplated playing “The Star Spangled Banner” but thought otherwise because I’d just learned that the “Vietnam War” is actually called the “American War” over here.
At about 6:30 am the bus driver kicked us (the French guys and Eric and me) off the bus and pointed to the dense fog in front. We eventually found a concrete building with lots of guys smoking in front of the entrance. I could spend an entire blog talking about what happened next but the short story is that we were eventually stamped to exit Laos and enter Vietnam – except for 2 of the French guys who got detained because the border crossing guard thought one of them had a fake passport and the guard was using Google to read about how to recognize fake French passports.
We returned to the foggy drizzle to watch our bus heading across the gated border while we where herded through line to have our passports “looked at” a bunch more times. Then we had to unload our bags from the bus, put them through an x-ray machine, reload our bags and run along beside the bus in the freezing rain and fog and mud until the bus driver decided to let us on. The bus driver showed special displeasure at Eric’s muddy shoes.
Bus Driver: Nga kl lwp lt hn.
(How does anyone even pronounce all those consonants together?)
Eric: Well, it’s your fault for stopping in the mud.
(Good thing the driver didn’t speak English.)
By now it was 9:00 am and we were back on the bus including the two detained French guys who the entire bus had been waiting for, and we had successfully driven about 20 meters into Vietnam. In the meantime, every other bus in Laos and every trucker from Thailand, Laos, China, India, and Russia had also made it to this mountaintop border crossing aka. one-lane, dirt-road gridlock. We sat in our bus until it was past lunchtime, when one of the Vietnamese border guards straightened out the traffic and got us moving at about 3 km/hour down the hill.
At 2:00 pm the bus driver pulled to a stop just 10 km south of Vinh, our final destination, and announced it was a “lunch stop.” I had a conversation with myself:
Me: Why is the bus driver stopping here when the bus station is 10 km away?
The other me: Maybe he forgot or didn’t understand that you want to get off in Vinh. The bus is going to Hanoi, you know.
Me: Eric, can you confirm that the bus driver is stopping in Vinh?
(a few minutes later)
Eric: The bus driver told me to go back to my seat!
After the bus got rolling again, the bus driver’s helper came back and said, “Vinh, 2 km” and he motioned for us to come to the front of the bus.
At this point, I knew two things:
The driver forgot about Vinh.
He was going to dump us on the side of the road.
Sure enough, after the driver paid the expressway toll he pulled to the side of the freeway. Eric and I scrambled to find all our panniers in the cargo hold, unbury our bicycles, and throw everything towards the guardrail.
Even with the bus ride from hell (and from other blogs I’ve read, this bus ride is a thrice weekly nightmare), we are glad we took a bus for this leg of the trip. Vinh has been for us a perfect start to our cycling in Vietnam. We’ve found a great hotel and been surrounded by nice people and food. We even found a gem of a bike store with the proper bearings to fix my failing set.
In the event that you cycle into a town at just the moment you can’t pedal another mile AND you’re lucky enough to have more than one option to choose from (not often the case) Eric and I have developed a quick checklist for making snap decisions regarding our night’s home.
1. Check the sign – The mustard yellow colored signs with the words “Guest House” or “Resort” (doesn’t mean it’s nicer) can signify lodging. The age and condition of the sign are often an indication of the age and condition of the housing. Be wary of the words “24/7”. We’re starting to think these words mean guests can pay by the minute. Actually, it would be cheaper for us to pay for 12 hours instead of 24 but we’re not sure we will sleep as well knowing what has been going on for the other 12 hours in the same room.
2. Look at the actual room. A good lobby doesn’t mean anything. Here’s our quick scan
– Mattress – Does it look clean? Does it look comfortable?
– AC or Fan – Do they work?
– Mosquito nets on windows – Do they cover the windows?
– Bathroom – Is it clean? Has it got hot water? Is there a Western toilet?
– Smell – Has it got a strong perfume smell? This often indicates a sewer back up being covered by perfume.
– Bicycle storage – In the room or in a secure location?
If the guest house has all of the above, you think you’re in for a great night, unless ….
your room is next to some roosters who can’t tell time,or some dogs who want the world to enjoy the beautiful full moon with them, or you’re next to the famous Wat (temple) with the drum player calling the monks to prayer, or your bed is next to the pump and holding tank for all the guest house water and every toilet flush is like a 10-gun salut.
As a matter of fact, the above checklist has been working pretty well until yesterday. Now we have to add a new item.
Does it have a sink?
Review the picture of yesterday’s bathroom.
At first glance we didn’t notice the missing sink. The fact that the mirror and sink shelf were placed above the toilet did not even register during our quick scan.
(And, as hind sight is twenty-twenty this question begs an answer. “Are you supposed to stand on the toilet to see yourself in the mirror?”)
The large trash bucket on the left seemed normal since most bathrooms use this bucket to hold water and there is a scoop inside so you can pour water into the toilet to flush it. This bathroom even had a hose for cold water on the left and a hose for hot water on the right.
It wasn’t until we started to brush our teeth before bed, that we noted the lack of a sink. We looked outside the door thinking it might be down the hall. We double- checked the bathroom just in case the sink was hiding behind the trash can or the toilet in a game of porcelain hide and seek. It wasn’t. We discussed our options.
Should we spit in the toilet?
Should we spit in the water bucket?
Should we spit on the floor?
Should we spit out the front door of the hotel?
I’m asking because we really did not know what to do. What is the proper etiquette for brushing your teeth when there is no sink in the room?
I could tell you our solution, but I don’t want it to ruin our chances of being accepted at future guest houses so you can private message me if you want to know.
For three days we cycled on Laos Highway 13, the major highway between the capital Vientiane and Luang Prebang. We covered a grueling 220 km (120 miles) and climbed 2700 meters (almost 9000 feet). Although the first two night’s lodging left a lot to be desired, each days’ million dollar views far exceeded the discomforts of concrete walls with peeling plaster and squat toilets down the hall, to bamboo mats sloping to the center defined as beds. The juxtaposition of stunning- some of the best I’ve ever seen in my life – scenery with people living in 3rd world – some of the poorest and least developed I’ve seen in my life – left conflicting emotions that I won’t forget.
Here is a summary of the things we saw:
Laos National Highway 13 – This two lane road narrowing down to one whenever the other lane has fallen off the edge of the mountain and slid down the steep ravine like an avalanche, is a winding, climbing, twisting, snake of a road with little traffic except for occasional overloaded 18 wheelers, intercity buses with motorcycles strapped to the top, motorcycles laden and piled high with fresh vegetables, hundreds of students on bicycles especially when school is starting and ending and cycle tourists. (We’ve seen more cycle tourists in the past two days than the past two months combined from places like Russia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Germany, South Africa, Thailand…who would have thought all these people would want to punish their bodies for such a great view.)
As one point on the highway, there was so much mud from half-completed road construction projects that we were sliding down the road like skis to snow. Tractor trailers were struggling to keep their traction and their loads from sliding sideways off the hill. A honk from a trucker said to me, “Get out of the way…here I come and I’m not stopping.”
The road is very hilly with steep, long, granny-gear-for-thousands-of-kilometers climbs. The reward is fast, long, downhill rides with the added fun of dodging obstacles such as large pot-holes, chip seal, gravel, chickens, pigs, ducks, and children. Think “mountain biking” with 25 kg of packs rattling and bouncing with each obstacle.
Poverty with very happy, carefree children – Nestled against this highway were tiny villages consisting of a few thatched-roof bamboo huts, an occasional cinder block house, or house covered with sheets of tin, and very infrequently a beautifully painted purple house. There were tiny shops selling soda bottles of gasoline (for the motorcycles), a few bottles of water (one we swear had the flavor and smell of dog urine), some bruised bananas, and several bags chips and/or cookies. In some of the more developed villages, someone might be squatting in front of the store grilling a few pieces of chicken over a wood fire.
But in every village, we were greeted by children waving and yelling “Saw Ba Dee” and giving us high-fives or running along beside us. The children were playing with sticks, empty tires, long blades of tropical grass (this looked like a game similar to bocce ball), digging in hills of dirt, sitting and splashing in wash tubs with their friends, or walking hand-in-hand down the highway chatting.
Life without indoor plumbing – Each village had several water spigots. Some even had hoses attached to the spigots. The more developed villages had a spigot tall enough to create of shower with a concrete floor and surrounded by a bamboo fence. Four teenage girls were giggling bathing together at one of these “showers” on the side of highway. Women were doing their laundry on rocks next to natural springs or beneath the village “showers”. Truck drivers bathed and laundered in the local hot springs and hung their clean shirts on hangers dangling from the front grills of their trucks. Tourists could pay 2000 kip (about 5c) to use “toilets” built at the edges of villages dotted along the mountain.
Million Dollar Views Around every bend, at the top of every hill, and in each valley, scenery could have been pictured in a National Geographic Magazine photo contest. Every color of green, steep mountains rising up through the clouds, jagged cliffs peeking out from the dense foliage, ribbons of steep road winding around, up and down the mountains, and colorful fields of rice and vegetables growing in dark, brown rich soil kept our minds off the difficulty of the ride. It was beautiful and more than any picture, especially one taken with my inept photography skills, could capture.
I couldn’t help but think that all of the villagers with houses along highway 13 would be millionaires if their property were in coastal California, Italy, Southern France or the Pacific Northwest. For the children, it seems like a pretty good place to be a kid. The babies feel safe and loved strapped to their parents until they can toddIe around. The children play in the rice paddies, under the houses, in the trees, on the dirts hills, and at school. They seem happy, friendly, and curious especially when compared to children who are glued to computers and cell phones all day.
I wonder if the villagers wake up each morning and appreciate the beauty of their setting. Or, if, like most adults, they are preoccupied with surviving the day, feeding their families and hoping for a better future for their children.
I know that I am grateful for the opportunity to soak up and experience this beautiful country and kind people, and hope that, as tourism and private enterprise continues to develop, the people can afford the luxuries of development and still appreciate their “million dollar views.”
I have an insatiable appetite, especially after a long, hard ride. I wake up hungry. I go to bed full but usually wake up in the middle of the night wishing I had a snack. Every few hours during the day, my stomach starts to growl. Couple all this hunger with delicious, French inspired Laotian cuisine and I can’t stop eating. I think about food all day and when I’m not thinking about it, I’m actually eating it.
I start with breakfast, which here in Luang Prabang, Laos includes delicious pan fried eggs, bacon, potatoes, crusty bread and coffee. Then, I immediately start looking for the perfect cafe for lunch. I finish lunch – stuffed I might add with cashew chicken Lao style with red chilies, green peppers and plenty of onions, and start looking for the perfect sidewalk cafe for an afternoon coffee, lemon tart and vantage point to watch people.
After watching the swarms of tourists in bright shades of elephant pants, some with three-foot long dread locks, heavily worn sandals with broken straps, North Face zip-off cargo pants, sunburns, sun glasses and newly purchased silk scarves to cover their bare shoulders when hiking up to ancient temples, I start the dinner discussion with Eric. Of course, I’ve got many options because I’m always looking for good places to eat.
Should we relax by the river sipping a delicious wine and fresh fish steamed with lemon grass in banana leaves and BBQ’d pork tenderloin with a side of home-made sweet and spicy red chili paste? Or should we head to the busy night market street for homemade Luang Prabang sausages, delicious locally grown mixed vegetables – the mushrooms are to die for – gently sautéed in a tasty, light oyster sauce with no MSG (at least that’s what the menus advertise).
Should I be satisfied eating one entire basket of crispy French bread and butter before dinner or should I throw all cares to the wind and order another? I’m sure I need the carbohydrates for tomorrow’s 78 km ride of which about 30 km is uphill. And what about that fresh banana shake to complement my meal? I’m sure all those bananas will help me avoid leg cramps.
I’d like to admit that all the above mentioned food is hypothetical, but it’s not. I’ve consumed everything mentioned above and then some. Don’t forget the Lao beer…Ok…beers…As much as I would like to stay here for a few more days and consume all the great food this town has to offer, I guess it’s time to get excited about hills and dales (but mostly hills) with only small, non-touristy villages (translation: non gourmet food with starving free-range chickens, questionable refrigeration, and non-existent hygiene practice) for the next five days.
Luckily, it’s time for my last supper in Luang Pragang.