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Old 10-02-2010, 04:26 AM   #1
Doug in the Dirt OP
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Location: Sydney, Australia
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Vietnam and onward... Two Minsks and Twins

A couple of years ago Kate and I spent a month or so riding around India and Nepal on Enfield Bullets. It was a heart-stopping and awe-inspiring trip. Here's a link to the ride report:

It was also thoroughly addictive. Back in Australia we kept ourselves out of trouble with some dirty weekends on the KLR and the Dakar through the bush around Sydney, with a longer run through the Snowys to Phillip Island for the Moto GP.

But another big trip was definitely in the pipeline. A few months of throwing ideas around, with some inspiration from Groff at Two Wheels magazine and the fellas from Top Gear, we came up with a very loose plan of buying a couple of Russian built Minsks in Hanoi, and heading across South East Asia....

So now it is the 2nd of October, 2010. Kate and I are sitting in an internet cafe in Luang Prabang (Laos). It's too hot and humid to go outside, and we are exhausted after the most recent leg of our journey. I've got an icy cold bottle of BeerLao, and it seems like a good opportunity to put some words on the web.

In Hanoi on September 1, we found Cuong of Vietnam Motorcycle Adventures, "Hanoi's original Minsk mechanic" in a small garage in the Old Quarter. He fixed us up with the Red Rattler and the Blue Bomber, a tool kit, a manual, spare parts, and enough cubic center-meters of enthusiasm to kick start our way into the chaos that is Hanoi traffic and far beyond.

Getting to know the Red Rattler and the Blue Bomber in Hanoi

We had a small prior commitment in Hanoi about a week later, so we thought we'd do a bit of a practice ride. On Cuong's advice we took off at dawn on highway 6 out of Hanoi and headed for the mountains of North West Vietnam.

At Hoa Binh, the first of the spectacular limestone karst mountains that characterize so much of South East Asia rose out of the rice paddies. The little two strokes started belching out more blue smoke and we were dropping down a couple of gears as the we started to wind our way up the first of the hills.

Out of Hoa Binh on Hwy 6

Smiling riders having found some corners

The hills kept rising, the corners got tighter, the traffic relaxed, and the scenery was breathtaking. By early afternoon we had reached Mai Chau, where we found a bed in a homestay that was a stilt house with a hill tribe family. Here we met up with Russell, a sheep and wheat farmer from Western Australia who had rented a Honda XR250 and was going the dirty back way up to Sapa.

Stilt house in Mai Chau

The next morning we continued up highway 6, through more spectacular mountain passes, long winding roads through tropical forest, across rice fields, along rivers and through small villages all the way to Son La.

Road to Son La

This day we put in over 200km, which does not sound like much by Australian standards, but really knocked us around on the winding roads, some of which were in pretty poor condition. We had hoped we would make it all the way to Sapa and back to Hanoi in time for our appointment, but it was looking like we might be pushing a bit hard.

The evening in Son La was spent getting stuck into the street bbq with chicken feet and buffalo liver my personal favourite (Kate will try almost anything, but that doesn't mean she likes it).

Street BBQ

Our accommodation was in the old communist party run Trade Union Hotel, and it was like stepping back into the 70's, it was also ridiculously overpriced and the service was terrible, and we decided to stick to the modern guesthouses where Vietnamese style virtual capitalism gives you a much better deal for your money.

The morning's ride decision was to head back the way we came, taking it easy for a couple of days, with a side trip to Ba Vi National Park before heading back into Hanoi.

The roads were just as much a pleasure to ride in the other direction, and we really got a feel for the bikes. The clutch on the Red Rattler started to slip, and I faced the first test of my limited mechanical ability. Removing the cover of the generator, it turned out to be a pretty simple matter of re-attaching the clutch cable to the lever where a small piece had bent out of shape.

Ba Vi national park is west of Hanoi, and the road took us from Hoa Binh along the river Song Da. A ferry across the river in about the right place unloaded us onto a small dirt track in the rice fields. This took a bit of navigation as no roads were marked on our map, there were no signs, and we couldn't find anyone who could speak English.

Ferry Across the River Song Da

Through the rice

We finally found our way to the gates of Ba Vi national park, and wound our way up the mountain.

Ba Vi National Park

The night was spent in the very strange atmosphere of the Ba Vi Resort, which is part 1920's French grandeur, part flash modern Vietnam, part immaculately maintained, and part neglected and abandoned.

The following morning we headed off early, to give ourselves plenty of time to take on the Hanoi traffic on highway 32. The run was going beautifully, with our first experience of a four lane divided freeway taking us effortlessly through the outer suburbs of the city.

It then came to an ugly and abrupt halt. The next 20 km were a nightmare of bottlenecks, road work, dust, heavy vehicles, the mother of all traffic jams. The bikes were over heating, the Blue Bomber's clutch cable had stretched so far that it wouldn't sit still with the clutch in, and we were both weeping with the dust, the fumes and our misguided western ideas of reasonable traffic behavior.

Hanoi traffic

By lunchtime we had made it back to the old quarter, and crashed out in the safety and comfort of the air conditioned hotel.

So that prior engagement.... We had some news about 3 months before we left Sydney that meant that we had booked an appointment at the French Hospital in Hanoi for an ultrasound. Kate was 18 weeks pregnant, and with twins. We had seriously considered abandoning the trip, but we were unlikely to get the chance to do something like this for at least the next 16 years.

Kate 18 weeks pregnant at the French Hospital in Hanoi

The medical advice we chose to follow was of the line that: The second trimester is the the safest and best time for travel. That South East Asia is a pretty safe place for a pregnant woman if you take sensible precautions about things like drinking water, food, and mosquito borne diseases. We had made sure we had enough cash to bail us out and get home at any time if needed. Furthermore, Kate is a highly experienced professional nurse, and we thought that we were able to make our own risk assessment along the way. Friends, family and nosy strangers were not necessarily of the same opinion.

More to come...

Doug in the Dirt screwed with this post 10-27-2010 at 03:19 PM Reason: fixing the pix
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Old 10-02-2010, 05:00 PM   #2
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India was an awesome trip and now another. Good one guys.
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Old 10-03-2010, 02:23 AM   #3
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Bring it on Doug!

'Vietnam is the next " lets do something different " trip i'm trying to get through the home based doubters.
18 weeks??
That will be a USP (unique selling point)!!
More photos and a summary of prices for food and accom if it's not too much to ask!

Thanks in advance

'Life isn't about how to survive the storm,

But how to dance in the rain.'

My RR's
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Old 10-05-2010, 04:40 AM   #4
Doug in the Dirt OP
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This time we aint coming back

The news from hospital was all good, in fact it was excellent. A little girl and a little boy were cooking away at a moderate temperature in Kate's oven. All the right bits were in the right places, hearts were beating, and the doctor said that we were good to go (we didn't actually mention how we planned to travel).

We took the bike into Cuong's shop first thing the next morning, to have a look at how they were running. He told us to leave them with him for a couple of hours, and when we came back he'd serviced them both, and they were running beautifully (he didn't charge us a single dong).

Cuong's operation in old Hanoi

With everything going so smoothly we decided not to stick around in Hanoi any longer... it was time to get back on the road.

Having made it a fair way up hwy 6 on our first ride, we thought we'd approach Sapa a different way this time. So we booked two tickets on the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai on the Chinese border. The train ride was excellent, we slept, we ate, I drank beer, and in the morning we were deep within the Red River Valley.

Unloading at Lao Cai

The ride from Lao Cai to Sapa on Hwy 4D only takes a couple of hours, but it is all uphill. The road winds it's way along the river valley, climbing through the clouds, with spectacular views to the North, and only occasional near-death experiences with trucks hurtling the other way down the hill.

Big spill

Up and up, round and round

Sapa is a beautiful town clinging to the edge of the steep valley in the shadow of Mt Fansipan, Vietnam's highest mountain. We spent a couple of nights here, enjoying the views from our guesthouse bar and just taking it easy and thinking about where to head next. The general direction of Laos seemed like a pretty good idea.

West from Sapa the road keeps climbing to Sin Ho pass, the highest pass in Vietnam, and the corners just keep winding up the valley. The little 125cc two strokes can manage a top speed of about 35 km/h up these hills, but i don't reckon it would be any more enjoyable a BMW R1200GS. They just chug away in second gear, occasionally needing some help from first on the hairpins, happily belching out clouds of blue smoke.

Mountain corners

Sin Ho pass was shrouded in mist, but as we descended the first few corners into the Mu River valley, the sky cleared and a spectacular valley view was revealed.

Mu River Valley

The road was a pretty rough in places, with big potholes, and whole sections washed out from landslides, as well as herds of buffalo being driven along the road. So it was nice to take it pretty slowly, and before long we were cruising with the bikes out of gear, the engines off, and listening to the birds and waterfalls as we rolled down hill for 35 kilometers.

Oncoming Traffic

When we reached the bottom, we just drifted to a stop on the bridge and had a break looking back up the valley from where we had just ridden.

All the way down

The main route from Sapa to the Laos border via Dien Bien Phu is to continue along hwy 4D, then south to join hwy 6 at Lai Chau. An Australian couple that had come this way told us that there was a lot of road work along this route, and they had spent hours in choking dust waiting while graders and excavators chewed up the road. This sounded like something to avoid. Our plan instead was to head down highway 32 to Than Uyen, and then west on hwy 279 through Tuan Giao to Dien Bien Phu. This looked pretty straight forward in theory, but we had heard a lot of mixed reports about the state of these roads, and whether or not they were dirt or sealed. This was the wet season, and dirt roads pretty quickly become mud baths which we weren't really keen on.

Wet Season

As it turned out, we made the right choice. The road was immaculate, freshly laid ash-felt, smooth as silk, with almost no traffic. And the incredible limestone scenery just continued.

Hwy 279

It was looking like we were going to be well ahead of our expected schedule until the Red Rattler lost power and stalled on a small hill. I could work out it was electrical (not fuel) that was the problem, so i started with the spark plug. It was mess, so i put in a spare, gave the Rattler a kick, and she fired into life. Feeling pretty pleased with myself we jumped back on and headed up the road.... for about 2 km. Same thing. This time i pulled out the manual and started doing a process of elimination through the electrical system. Two hours in the blazing sun later, i was vaguely of the opinion that the problem was not in the switches, wiring, electrical box or transformer. That left things a bit more difficult, and well outside of my unassisted roadside mechanical ability.

Fortunately we were now in pushing distance of a small town with a mechanic. The young guy had a bit of a look, pronounced it more hassle than he was prepared to deal with, and tied a rope to the forks, hitched me up to his scooter, and towed me to another mechanic 600 meters up the road. This fella was old school, new about Minsks, and started to take the generator apart. He tested the coils and found a faulty set. But he didn't have any spares. Cuong came into his own now, having loaded us up with spares, including generator coils. 100 000 dong (5 bucks) and half an hour later, the Red Rattler was happily chugging away again. The mechanic wished us well, said something about Yamaha that i think was advice for choosing a bike, and waved us goodbye.

That night we made it to Tuan Giao, where dog meat is big on the menu.

Off to the BBQ
Off to the BBQ

Why are the bitches on the billboards always so good looking?

Woofa didn't come home last night

Suffice to say, it doesn't taste anything like chicken.

In North-West Vietnam, like the rest of the country, Honda step through scooters outnumber all other vehicles on the road, but there are still plenty of Minsks working away. While most Vietnamese people we met thought of them as archaic, unreliable, inefficient and generally something to avoid (they may have a point), anytime we passed one on the road the rider (usually an older man) would wave and shout and generally express their love for the old brutes. This one was doing a market run in Dien Bien Phu.

Working Minsk

Dien Bien Phu is the nearest town to the Vietnam-Laos border at Tay Trang. The border has only been open to tourists for a couple of years, and it is pretty hard to find info about what the road is like on the Laos side. But a bus does do the run and will take tourists from Dien Bien Phu to Muong Kuah in Laos, so we thought it couldn't be too bad. After a night in a Dien Bien Phu we got a start at dawn to give ourselves as much time as possible, and headed west into the mountains in a steady drizzle on our run to the border.

The road was single lane ash-felt of varying standard, that wound its way through the jungle and into the mountains. The rain persisted, the clouds closed in, at 8am we were cold and miserable, and at the border.

The customs and immigration house at Tay Trang is a strange place. It has been built to process thousands of people a day, and looks as if it is meant to be a shining new example of Vietnamese prosperity. I imagine in a few years, with some road upgrades, it will come into its own.

Vietnamese Border at Tay Trang

Immigration was very serious, but no problems. Customs were not so happy about the rego papers for our bikes. They were not in our name, I don't know who's name they were in, and as all the writing was in Vietnamese i don't even know where the name was written. This is just how it is for tourists. You need a licence to own a bike, you need a working visa to get a licence, and anyway, nobody really cares. After a bit of a performance from the officials, which we responded to with appropriate gestures such as nodding our heads, shaking our heads, waving our hands around, and saying things like 'chao' (hello), 'cam on' (thankyou), and 'pho bo' (beef noodle soup), they wrote '20 dollar' on a piece of paper. when we produced the required green back, they filled in some forms and we pushed our bikes across the border.

More to come....

Doug in the Dirt screwed with this post 10-27-2010 at 03:34 PM Reason: fixing the pix
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Old 10-05-2010, 08:42 AM   #5
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How much did the bike rental cost you per day?
Also how much was sleeping? Did you do hotel/hostel or camping?
Is it possible to just set up a tent anywhere and sleep?

Beautiful trip. Congrats to the Lady! and the new addition to the family.
Im planning on doing a similar trip

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Old 10-05-2010, 11:09 AM   #6
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This should be an interesting report, lovely mountain roads and senery, but please no more pics of dogs going to the slaughter house. One of those dogs in the cage looks a lot like my dog, that's just sad.

04 Kodiak 450
06 Wee-Strom

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Old 10-05-2010, 02:47 PM   #7
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I'm in. You're making me get itchy feet.
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Old 10-05-2010, 02:52 PM   #8
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Great start,, thanks for the detailed report and pics

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Old 10-06-2010, 05:59 PM   #9
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Laos in the mud

It was 10 am by the time we cleared Vietnamese customs and immigration, and the drizzle kept coming down. There was a small noodle stall with some tables under an awning so we thought we'd give the weather a chance to clear and have some breakfast. A couple of four-wheel drives arrived from the Laos side, and they were covered in mud. The weather went from damp and miserable to full scale tropical downpour. The next leg was looking pretty tough.

It is about 5km over the mountain from Tay Trang to the Laos immigration and customs checkpoint at Sop Houn. The sealed road extends as far as line of sight from the Vietnamese checkpoint, and then the mud begins.

No mans land

This was the deep, slippery stuff that provided no traction for our mainly road tyres, and it was steep, any pressure on the brakes and the wheels locked up. We just tried to keep the little beasts idling down in first gear using our feet as outriggers. To really rub it in, the side stand on the Red Rattler broke off as we got off the bikes at the checkpoint.

The Laos checkpoint is another enormous facility, that will make sense once the road is upgraded, but just seems very strange after wallowing in the mud. Customs and immigration were no problem, the officials were very laid back, and even apologized for the condition of the road. Apparently it will all be sealed by the start of next wet season.

Laos arrival - Blue Bomber lends a shoulder to the Red Rattler to lean on

The first town on the Laos side of the border is Muang May. This was about 25 km down the road, and the steep slippery mud continued the whole way. This leg of the journey took us over 3 hours (not much faster than walking) and was absolutely exhausting. Fortunately the rain eased off a bit, and there was some beautiful mountain forest and streams along the way. Small bamboo bridges, where an old woman would collect a toll of 2000 kip (20 c) were used to cross the swollen streams.

Toll booth

Stream crossing on the road to Muang May

By the time we reached Muang May, it was all we could manage to check into a guest house, get our muddy clothes off, shower, and sit by the river and try out the national brew - Beerlao. It was very good. We spent a very pleasant afternoon just watching the locals fishing and bathing, the kids swimming and the occasional truck crossing the river.

Fishing at Muang May

More to come...

Doug in the Dirt screwed with this post 10-27-2010 at 03:46 PM Reason: fixing the pix
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Old 10-08-2010, 03:53 AM   #10
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Old 10-08-2010, 06:14 AM   #11
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More mud...

The next morning the weather wasn't looking much better, still steady drizzle with intermittent tropical downpours. The river crossing at Muang May is a narrow suspension bridge with large gaps where planks have broken, and it sways and bounces in a very concerning manner.

River Crossing at Muong May

It is then another 35km to Muang Khua, which our map indicated as the start of the sealed road. The next couple of hours were more of the same slow crawl through the mud, but with uphill and downhill sections. There were a number of trucks bogged up to the axles on the hill sections, and the road was a complete washout in parts.

Stuck in the mud 

The upgrading of this road appears to be coming along pretty steadily, and it looks as if the small villages along the way are likely to see a lot more tourist and freight traffic from Vietnam once it is finally sealed and the bridges are built.

Traditional village amongst the road works

The last 10 km the road improved dramatically, still unsealed, but perfectly graded with proper drainage. The rain also eased and we were able to enjoy the riding and the view in Laos for the first time without worrying about every muddy rut and pothole. When we finally reached the small village on the Eastern bank of the River Nam Ou, opposite Muang Khua, we had a couple of stream crossing, some last sections of mud, and then the ramp down to the vehicle ferry.

Stream crossing 

The poor little Red Rattler without its side stand just needed to lie down and take it easy while we worked out how to negotiate with the ferry man to get to the other side.

Little lie down

There is a vehicle carrying barge that operates on the Nam Ou at Muang Khua. In the half hour that we spent on the bank we watched 3 four-wheel drives, and two trucks be ferried very efficiently across. When we went to ride onto the barge after it had unloaded, we were told in no uncertain terms (although we couldn't understand a word) that the barge was not for use by bikes. The bloke who appeared to be in charge directed us to 30ft long, 2 ft wide, very unstable looking vessel. This was how bikes made the crossing. With the help of a couple of bystanders, we picked up the bikes and stood them in the middle of the boat. This didn't look particularly safe to me, but the ferry man jumped in, and we were off across the fast flowing and turbulent waters of the Nam Ou. He handled the boat expertly, and in a couple of minutes we were across and unloading the bikes at the small town of Muang Khua.

Unloading in Muang Khua (Barge on the other bank)

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Old 10-12-2010, 11:17 PM   #12
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Slow boats and city lights

We spent a very restful night in Muang Khua, but we were still pretty bike sore after the trip from the Vietnamese border. I found someone to weld up the stand on the Red Rattler for a good price. It looked like it was possible to catch a slow boat down the Nam Oo to Nong Khiew, and we reckoned this might be a nice change of scenery. After some tough negotiations we agreed on a fare, loaded the boats aboard and began the five hour trip downstream.

Slowboat down the Nam Oo

This stretch of the river winds its way through dense jungle and spectacular limestone mountains. It's also very remote, with no road access the whole way. The river is the lifeline for the the small villages along the banks.

There is also a fast boat that makes the trip in about 2 hours. These are basically big wooden surf skis with a 6 cylinder car engine mounted on the back driving a long shaft prop. They are noisy, and can capsize just hitting chop. Apparently people die on these things quite regularly. I'd love to have one to run around Sydney Harbour on the weekend.

Fast boat

The wharf at Nong Khiew is in a sorry state. There are about 60 steps that lead from the road down to the water, but half of these have collapsed, and the only route is a scramble up the steep muddy bank. As always, there were people around willing to help out for fee. I think we may have had a dozen people, including old women and young kids hauling the bikes up to the street.

Off the boat

Up the bank

Kate cruising around Nong Khiew

After a night in a very nice, good value bungalow, right on the river, we were ready to ride again. This leg of the journey would take us South on Route 13, the main highway in Laos, following the Nam Oo until it joined the Mekong near Lang Prabang.

Lang Prabang is a beautiful, world heritage listed city. The french colonial architecture has been preserved amongst the Buddhist temples, royal palace, parks and tree lined streets. Cafe's, restaurants and guesthouses line the river front, and it all has a very relaxed atmosphere. We were very happy to spend a couple of days just taking it easy, drinking coffee, going to the markets and watching life on the river front.

Dawn in Luang Prabang

I could get the twins around in one of these

Luang Prabang sunset

More to come...

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Old 10-14-2010, 03:26 PM   #13
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Old 10-15-2010, 10:45 PM   #14
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Highway 13

After a couple of days in Luang Prabang we were rested, and had itchy feet again. Our Golden-Triangle Rider map of Laos showed the profile of the route down highway 13 to Phou Khoun and Vang Vieng as being pretty spectacular, with several mountain passes and a maximum elevation of 1600 meters. It also showed the road as paved the whole way which would be a nice change.

We made a dawn getaway towards the cloud covered mountains to the South. Within 20 minutes we were climbing up a series of tight bends into the mountains, and into dense fog, then into rain. There were occasional glimpses of spectacular mountain views, but with the wet, steep roads and fast moving truck and bus traffic, we were pretty focused on the riding.

Wet and winding road

The weather finally opened up as we descended down the mountains from Phou Khoun into the Nam Lik valley and the highway town of Kasi. From here the scenery was beautiful, but the road became pretty hard work, with enormous potholes and lots of trucks. The final run into Vang Vieng wound through some amazing limestone country.

Road into Vang Vien

In Vang Vieng we found a guest house with bungalows on stilts by the river. We crashed out pretty early, heard a bit of storm in the night and work up in the morning to find the bikes underwater.

Storm in the night

Vang Vieng is a real backpacker party town. The kids drink cheap whisky out of buckets, smoke weed, eat mushroom pizza, and drink opium tea. The big thing to do is to hire a tractor tyre tube and float down the river stopping at the dozens of bars along the banks and just partying the whole way. It's pretty good fun even if you are not as young as you once were.

Tubing on the Nam Song

The locals have also built swings, waterslides and flying foxes at these bars that seem like a really good idea after a few beers. Apparently quite a few people drown every year.


The next leg of our jouney took us further south down highway 13 to Vientiane, the capital of Laos.

In comparison with other SE Asian cities, Vientiane is a very laid back place. The traffic is relatively light, there is not much hassling from tuk tuk drivers and touts, and its pretty easy to get around. The food is also fantastic, with excellent french, italian, indian, chinese, vietnamese, thai, and american, as well as the local bbq at the night markets on the Mekong.

From Vientiane we planned to do a loop back to Luang Prabang via Pak Lay and Xayaboury on the western side of the Mekong, a remote area that was once part of Thailand. We had a chat with Jules who runs a dirt bike rental business about the state of the road. He reckoned that it was mostly unsealed, and was likely to be pretty nasty mud after the last couple of tropical down pours. So bearing Kate's current condition in mind (22 weeks pregnant with twins) we thought we'd let that plan go. From Vientiane we could also cross the friendship bridge into Thailand, but we were really enjoying Laos and still had two weeks left on our visa. We decided instead to head back up highway 13 to Luang Prabang.

More to come...

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Old 10-16-2010, 03:08 PM   #15
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Bring it on
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