Monthly Archives: August 2015

Cha Lo/Na Phao border crossing


I took the Asian Highway 131 from the Ho Chi Minh Highway in Quảng Bình region towards the border with Laos. The road was good with excellent mountain views. I loved it. Camping close to the road I found that I had picked up a leech when I sprayed my legs with deet. The leech (‘Larry’) immmediately fell off and wasn’t a problem but my leg did not want to stop bleeding. I had to apply pressure to the bite for some time to stop making a bleedin’ mess. For some way the road followed the river Gianh but then climbed and dipped through a series of valleys dotted with small settlements. It was quite different from the Viet Nam I had already seen with deep jungle and old wooden stilt houses. It appeared timeless. The thick lush vegetation created a green carpet in every direction. I imagined how difficult it would be to cut a way through it. This was my first experience of real jungle and appeared quite a forbidding place. I stopped for food in a village  and was spoilt with the most delicious cooked meal of catfish steaks, prawns, omelette and rice.

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The Cửa khẩu Cha Lo border area is a slightly messy collection of buildings. Just before the administration building there is a glass fronted hotel and a small ring road with storage warehouses. My arrival was fairly late in the day and would liked to have spent a night at the hotel. But it was locked and empty. I did a little circuit of the buildings, got my passport stamped and found myself cycling along the lengthy road towards the Laos checkpoint of Na Phao. Border crossings are always so exciting! The Laos checkpoint was even more of a mess. I found a collection of wooden huts housing the various officials either side of a muddy road that had been churned up by construction vehicles. I had to climb wooden planks to reach the visa office. I had to wake the undressed official asleep in his bed in a small room at the rear of the office. $30 dollars and I had a shiny Laos  30 days visa. The whole process took about ten minutes and everyone was very friendly. Unfortunately I did not take advantage of an offer to change currency. With the light fading I needed to get a little distance between myself and the border and find a discreet place to wild camp. Turning a corner I cycled past a newly built border office building and then began my descent into Laos. Stopping to camp I was presented with a magnificent sunset view of the valley below. I fell asleep to the noisy sounds of the jungle. Laos!IMG_4165 IMG_4171 IMG_4174 IMG_4177

Ho Chi Minh Highway



I finally joined the Ho Chi Minh Highway (HCMH) at Thạch Thành just West of the Cúc Phương national park and approximately 80 miles from my original starting point in Hanoi. The trip to Halong Bay and Ninh Binh had been quite an exciting diversion. The 750 mile HCMH, which roughly follows the route of the original Trường Sơn or Hồ Chí Minh trail, extends from Hanoi along the length of Viet Nam to Ho Chi Minh City in the South. It presents as a fair challenge for touring cyclists with sections passing through the mid Viet Nam highlands and some quite extraordinary scenery. However it is fair to say that with the ongoing upgrading of sections of the route to a six lane highway it no longer holds quite the same attraction as it once did. Increasingly it more suited to a motorbike than a bicycle. Currently the HCMH through the central provinces remains a quiet, often very rural, road. But no doubt that will change.

 Over the next few days I cycled 200 miles South on the HCMH passing through Thanh Hoa, Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces. The highlight of this was all the wonderful friendly people that I met along the way. The weather was a little mixed and got caught in a major downpour. I had stopped to make coffee when the rain fell very heavily. People from a house nearby rushed across with umbrellas to help and insisted I take shelter in their home. The generosity of spirit expressed by everyone I met along the route was quite remarkable. Wild camping was relatively easy although I did take a room (and very welcome shower) at a hotel in Yen Cat.  One magical night whilst camping in a banana grove my tent was surrounded by dancing fireflies.

Looking at the map I was drawn towards the UNESCO world heritage site of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in Quang Binh province. But I became a little weary with the HMCH turning at times into a major road. My original intention was to explore Laos after Viet Nam and had marked the most Southern border crossing between the two countries as a possibility. However and having already passed one opportunity to head into Laos from the HCMH at Nam Phao I was presented with a turning and road sign pointing towards the Cura Khan Cha Lo border crossing.  I decided, somewhat impulsively, to head down (or rather up) the AH131. It was time for a change of direction.


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Bai Đính



Situated slightly West and part of the Tràng An Landscape Complex; Bai Đính consists of multiple temples and a pagoda built on limestone hills (Bai Đính ‘mountain’) close to the Hoang Long River.  Although mostly of fairly recent construction it is built in a traditional style and on a grand scale. It consists of a gateway by a lake, belltower, covered walkways, a series of three increasingly larger temples and many record breaking Russian bronze gilded Buddhist statues. Bai Đính took over 7 years to construct and employed local craftsmen to produce a classical influenced religious complex of breathtaking proportions. It boasts of Asia’s largest bronze gilded Great Buddha Sakyamuni statue (10 metres high and weighing 150 tonnes) and also the largest ‘Di Lac’ or ‘laughing buddha’. It  also has the largest bronze bell at over 50 tonnes and the biggest pearl well in Viet Nam. The pagoda, which provides a focus for the complex, is the highest in Viet Nam.


I felt a little uncomfortable leaving my bike and gear with a stranger on the Bái Đính – Cúc Phương road but it turned out to be a good decision. I ensured that I was carrying all the really ‘must not lose’ important stuff in my backpack. Once past the perimeter fencing and into the grounds of the temple complex I climbed up a muddy track that led past workmen’s huts towards the pagoda. The garden around the pagoda was being landscaped with lots of newly planted trees. I joined some workmen and clambered over a stone balustrade onto the paved walkway surrounding the monument. The pagoda, Viet Nam’s largest, provides great views over the surrounding complex and lake beyond. Steps nearby lead directly down to an international conference centre. Above and behind is a huge bronze ‘laughing buddha’. From this highest point I followed a route down to the Tam The dharma temple and the three huge huge statues of Buddha within.

The three temples buildings are connected to each other via steps and walkways which drop down towards the lake. These covered walkways are home to hundred of statues of Buddhist Arhats or masters. Each one is quite unique having been carefully modelled on their original subjects. They were created by masons at a local village using Ninh Bình stone.

Shortly before the final gatehouse, shrine and interior walkways is a bell house within which is the largest, at 36 tonnes, crafted bronze bell in Viet Nam. To ring it would require a large tree trunk as a hammer! IMG_3605 IMG_3604


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I climbed back up the hill past the ‘masters’ and returned to the pagoda. A little walk back along the lane, through a wood and I was back at the house where I had left my bike. All was good. The young lads sitting at a table out front offered some food but I was keen to get going to find the Ho Chi Minh Highway (QL45).. or at least somewhere to sleep. After a short while I found myself heading North on the busy QL 12b but then continued West on a smaller rural road towards the town of Phố Cát. Before the town I found a handy little bamboo forest stretching along one side of the road with fields and karst hills on the other. I pitched my tent and made coffee. It had been quite a day.

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Ninh Bình and Tràng An


With the wet weather easing  I took a short excursion on my bike into the ‘Tràng An Scenic Landscape Complex’ that begins a short distance out of Ninh Bình. This newly designated (2014) UNESCO Heritage Site covers over 100 square kms of spectacular limestone karsts, extensive inland waterways and cave systems.

As i made my way through Ninh Bình’s impressive Western gateway a few limestone mounds stood out in stark contrast to the surrounding flat fields. A little further ahead a car had overturned on the wet road and its occupants (unharmed I was told) had been whisked away.


The flat fields soon gave way to high limestone hills and towering cliffs.The road snaked between them. I spotted a well used track to explore. This led me past paddy fields and a few local houses before reaching a small village. The further I cycled the more I was taken aback by the beautiful and often mysterious looking scenery. The limestone cliffs, lakes and traditional village buildings created an almost fairytale appearance.  It was an exciting and wonderful ride!





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The karst scenery of Tràng An is on a similar scale to that of Halong Bay and show how that must have have looked before the sea laid claim to it all. Soon I found my way, more by luck than anything else, via paths between paddy fields back onto the main road. A little further West lay the Buddhist temple complex of Bai Đính. But with insufficient time remaining I decided to  circle back ‘home’ towards Ninh Bình. But this did take me past the tourist entrance to the Tràng An park. It was, as I had suspected, a major tourist site with an extensive coach and retail park. The main attraction is a scenic river boat trip which passes through limestone caves (Tam Coc and Trang An). I cycled over a bridge with the intention to ride around the main tourist reception building on the island where the tourist boats were moored but was shooed away by a security guard. No bikes allowed.


I found a small local road that led back into Ninh Bình. On the outskirts of the city I joined some road construction guys cooking on an open fire and refused their kind offers of food. Further along I helped an elderly man that was having some serious difficulty reattaching a metal flag bracket to a concrete wall. Hammering nails into concrete isn’t that easy especially when crumbling from previous attachments. But between us we managed it. A small victory for the day…

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That evening and after a bit of a wander, Steve and I finally got a table and excellent food in the popular ’24 Hour Noodle Shop’ on Le Hong Phong Road.  Cheap, wonderful and good enough for a repeat visit the next day before finally leaving Ninh Bình.

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Back on the road I had my sights set on visiting the temple complex at Bai Đính. My route took me, once again, through the  incredible karsts and paddy fields of Tràng An.

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My route to the temple at Bai Đính was a little tricky. I had to negotiate along the shoreline of a long wide lake until finally the temple gates and pagoda came into view on the opposite bank. I hoped that maybe I could get a boat across but had to continue some way. After a long muddy track I found a main road that appeared to be going in the right direction. But then it continued too far past the pagoda which then disappeared behind a hill. I turned back. A young lad selling noodles on a stall in front of his families house told me that there was a short cut to the pagoda and temple complex. This involved slipping past a fence, over a field, and then through an access tunnel under the main road. I left my bike and gear with him in an outbuilding and set off on foot. He showed me the spot in the fence before returning to his stall. It was turning into a bit of an adventure..