Vietnam: blood, sweat and tears, but mostly laughter, karaoke and rice wine!

Vietnam: blood, sweat and tears, but mostly laughter, karaoke and rice wine!

16-01-2023 – 14-02-2023

At some point during this trip we hear about the north of Vietnam. The most beautiful road in Southeast Asia is said to be there. Mountain slopes covered with rice terraces and villages where people still belong to one of the many ethnic groups. We enter a route into the GPS and are both shocked by the altimeters: +23,800m over 1,500km. Also, since Covid, visas for Vietnam have only been issued for 30 days. So there won’t be many extra rest days, and Audrey is still limping from a hip injury sustained in the mountains of northern Laos. We are a bit nervous, but we are also looking forward to experiencing the Vietnamese New Year.

The border between Laos and Vietnam is on top of a mountain. The reward is that after the climb we can now roll into Vietnam. We pass many enthusiastically honking motorbikes and some large stone quarries, but are immediately impressed by the mountainous landscape. The road is not very good and within minutes we are covered in a thick layer of dust from the quarries and passing trucks. A driver holds out a large bottle of water from his window and when he passes us again later he stops to hand us a bag of face masks.

We soon reach civilisation again. We see rice terraces as far as the eye can see and discover that Vietnam has very busy, noisy and chaotic traffic. Every passing vehicle honks its horn, as is the custom, to let you know you are coming…. What a contrast to Laos! Anything you can imagine can be transported on a scooter, from animals (a live giant pig on the back, dogs, chickens, a goat under the arm, etc.) to flat screens and even a dirt bike. But we also see ‘driving trees’ everywhere for the upcoming Vietnamese/Chinese New Year (Tết). Much like how we put up a Christmas tree, they decorate a blossom or fruit tree with decorations and lights. The bigger the tree, the more prosperity and health a family can expect.

Preparing for the New Year/Tết

In the first town, Điện Biên Phủ, we end up in a room with a nice hot shower. A little later, Audrey wants to relax on the bed, but when Eloy enters the room, he sees that she has collapsed with her heavy weight…. We laugh about it and push the boards back together. The next morning we get a SIM card and leave town. When we get hungry in the afternoon, we walk into a ‘living room/restaurant’ that looks like it has just been ransacked, with paper and food all over the floor. She shows us to the neighbours who have PHỞ BÒ. We don’t know what that is yet, but it’s the only thing they sell. Someone is sleeping in a hammock and children are trying to do their homework, but are distracted by the foreigners. Eventually, we are served beef noodle soup, which is common for breakfast, lunch and dinner here in northern Vietnam. A new country also means a new cuisine and different dishes whose names we do not yet know. The first thing we notice is that most of the ‘restaurants’ are just living rooms with TVs, desks and beds.

Today is the first real day of climbing and the views are beautiful. It is chilly, so Audrey puts on her down coat for the first time since Kazakhstan. On the way, we meet more scooters with pigs, chickens and, above all, lots of New Year trees. The mood is cheerful, and we sense that the elaborate preparations for Tết/New Year are in full swing. Houses, cars and scooters are being cleaned, and presents, new clothes, food and decorations are being stocked up everywhere. People are getting haircuts and family members are travelling across the country to celebrate the New Year together. The festivities have not yet begun, but will last for 7 to 14 days. Christmas at home is almost nothing like this.

We stopped at a restaurant and asked if they had fried rice. They did, and an elderly couple sitting next to us looked at us expectantly. We didn’t understand each other, but the man showed us his mobile phone, which was playing Vietnamese music on YouTube. He points to a video clip in which Jesus seems to be starring. We think he wants to make it clear that they are Christians and so are we, but we are not sure. ….

Every few minutes people walk past with their thumbs up, waving, saying ‘hello’ and honking their horns. Some teenagers stop their scooters at the side of the road to have their picture taken with Eloy. They are particularly impressed by the difference in height. It briefly reminds us of Uzbekistan, also known as ‘Selfiestan’. We pass through small villages that are nevertheless very busy. There is a lot of shopping going on, including meat for the New Year celebrations, as most shops and supermarkets are closed during the festivities. So we pass all kinds of meat, including cow heads.

Pokémon cards and marbles

When we decide we have had enough for today, we head for one of the 3 guesthouses we can find. Or rather, someone is already taking us there. At the guesthouse, the 10-year-old boy next door watches us park the bikes. We check the room, hygiene is at an all-time low, but we make do. We put our own mats on the bed and go back downstairs. The boy next door has put Pokémon cards on our bikes: “To take home”.

A little later, when we were trying to find something to eat, the boy next door arrived on his own bike. He rides with us through the village and finally helps us find something open, as everything seems to be closed except for a huge, dilapidated resort. What this resort is doing in this small village is anyone’s guess, but we can order a plate of fried rice there. Back at the guesthouse, the owner invites us in for tea. He smokes a large bamboo pipe with water in it. We thank him for his offer. When he hears that we have eaten, he explains via Google Translate that he will prepare some more and that we can continue to drink and eat sweets in the meantime as it is the end of the year. We assume that he is still preparing something in the kitchen, but in fact we have had enough. As we waited with tea and sweets, we heard the last cries of a chicken. Then, as we came to watch, he proudly showed us the naked chicken being washed and prepared. Tomorrow it will be even more beautified, we read via Google Translate. Luckily we don’t have to eat it. He does aidgebaar and points out that in the last 2 days before Tết people sacrifice animals to ward off bad luck. This explains why we see animals being transported and slaughtered by the roadside everywhere. The boy next door also stops by and proudly shows off his marbles, or so we think. But then he makes it clear that we have to take them all. They are a gift from him. We give him a photo card and his eyes light up. Then we crawl into bed to the sound of loud karaoke music, crowing roosters, fighting cats and barking dogs in the wooden guesthouse. Not to mention the communist propaganda music and messages they blast through the loudspeakers into the villages and towns at 5.30am in the morning😅.

On the way to Sapa

The days have been filled with a lot of climbing, but this is only the beginning. We are tired and it is not always easy to find food as many shops and supermarkets are already closed due to Tết starting the day after tomorrow. We ask people if they know of anything open, but unfortunately not. Then a girl on a scooter comes along and asks in fluent English where we are going. Eloy replies ‘Food, we are looking for something to eat’. She says we’d better go the other way, but then invites us to eat at her house. It is only a few metres away and we follow her upstairs through her mother’s shop. Her mother laughs at the prank her daughter, Quynh, has pulled again, inviting wild strangers into her house at the busiest time of the year. Quynh is an English teacher and she serves us eggs and the traditional dish during Tết: Banh Chung. This is sticky rice stuffed with mung beans and often meat, wrapped in banana leaves.

On the way is the Tram Ton Pass. This means a climb of 1350m in 26km and is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful mountain passes in Vietnam. After several hours of climbing, we enter a white haze and crawl uphill for the last few kilometres. It is cold and windy, but we are quite warm from the climb. At the top is a famous viewpoint called ‘Heaven’s Gate’. Our Heaven’s Gate looked like the one on the left. According to Google it looks like the one on the right photo….

On the other side of the pass, the weather is better and as we drive down the mountain towards Sapa and get below the clouds, we still see amazing views. In Sapa we will experience the first day of the Tết New Year festival. Fireworks are set off, offerings are made at temples and the dead are remembered. There is also a lot of eating. Several times the young man from the guesthouse invited us to try all the sweets, which were strange to us. We sit next to a home-made coal fire to warm the room, with orange peels and a bowl of water for the smell and humidity. It is around 7 degrees in Sapa and there is no central heating anywhere, but whether this is a safe way to heat a room is questionable,

We can see China across the river!

After Sapa, the journey continues towards Lao Cai. A border town separated from China by a river. We stop for a hot drink as the road from Sapa to Lao Cai descends steeply for many kilometres. It’s a cold undertaking in these temperatures. We sit down at a small table and order a hot chocolate. Two young girls at the table next to us are particularly interested. The eldest is 9 and speaks reasonably good English. She tries to ask us all sorts of questions. The younger sister, meanwhile, is dancing around. Suddenly, they both appear with a note in a red envelope. Red is the symbol of good luck in Eastern cultures. They want to give us the money because it is their ‘lucky money’. It is an old tradition to give ‘lucky money’ to children and the elderly during Tết. This is to show respect and hope for a happy new year.

A little later we are at the border between Vietnam and China. The tall skyscrapers and an unusual building structure are visible from the other side of the river. It is unreal. At the moment (January 2023), it is not yet possible to apply for a tourist visa to China. The bridge looks deserted and no one is crossing, but people are standing on both sides, gazing at the unknown other side. A tour bus full of Singaporeans also comes to have a look at the border, but when they see us, we steal the scene and ask if we can have our picture taken with them.

Tết is in full swing. We stay in different guesthouses, but each time we are served a huge load of sweets and food. And when we leave, we often get a banh chung or two for the road. On the way, a scooter regularly passes by and tries to give us some. This is what the bike looks like sometimes:

Back roads lead to challenges and special encounters

We try to avoid the main roads in Vietnam as the traffic is very busy and noisy. As a result, we sometimes end up on very quiet gravel or mud roads. It always remains to be seen what the road looks like and whether we can get through, but the quiet roads usually lead to the most unexpected moments. Eloy tries unsuccessfully to brake his new brake pads on the muddy road. At one point we are barked at as we seem to be entering the territory of 3 giant dogs. A bit further on we have a flat tyre, which turns out to be caused by a stray fishhook, something you don’t come across on the main roads 😉 but it’s fixed within 10 minutes. Meanwhile, the view is beautiful. A man paddles by on a bamboo raft and then we are invited by a family with 3 small children for coffee and hot (black) banh chung. Communication is by hands and feet and a piece of paper; there is no telephone. Meanwhile, the children are drawing a picture on the white piece of wall with a pen after the blue paint on the outside of the hut has flaked off.

A cinnamon plantation

We realise that we are not going to cover the distance we have planned for today, so we decide to stop early at a guesthouse in the middle of a cinnamon forest! The sweet scent can be smelled from afar and on arrival we are served spicy cinnamon tea. A little later the family knocks again and hands us a whole tray of banh chung, cold sausages and rice with peanuts. They do this while we munch on one of the other banh chungs we still have in our pockets.

The cinnamon tree grows best in tropical climates. The inner bark is harvested, cut vertically and dried. This is then rolled into the familiar cinnamon sticks. As they dry, the sticks turn a typical yellow-brown colour.

A day to remember!

We set off early the next morning, as we want to cover quite a few kilometres today in order to stay within our 30-day visa. As usual, little comes of this idea. Soon we are approached by a young man on a scooter. He asks us if we know what ‘Tết’ is and immediately invites us to his house to celebrate Tết with his family. He rides ahead on his fully loaded scooter and says it will be on the right in 5 km. After 10km we thought we had missed him and just as we were giving up on the idea, a young man called Duc came running out of a house. As soon as we stood under the house, which was built on bamboo poles, dozens of children gathered around us. Later we enter the house, which is actually a large wooden hut with no furniture, just carpets on the wooden floor. Slowly the adults arrive and the women are all dressed in the simple but traditional and colourful clothes of their tribe, the Tay. The Tay are one of Vietnam’s 53 ethnic minorities. They have their own customs, costumes and language, and most work in rice farming. One of the grannies sits on the floor opposite Audrey, staring at her in fascination. Meanwhile, she is chewing on something, turning her mouth and teeth black. This is a beauty ritual and is also said to protect against tooth decay.

Only Duc knows a little English, so he translates as much as he can. Still, we are far from understanding everything, and it becomes a mad dash when about 20 people have gathered in the house, who find it particularly amusing that there are two foreigners among them. The family dinner is about to begin, with lots of local specialities, unrecognisable meats and, what’s more, a toast to the New Year (Chúc mừng năm mới!) accompanied by a shot of home-brewed rice wine or beer. After each toast, made after EVERY sip that EVERYONE drinks, hands must be shaken. Everyone wants to sit with us for a while, toast with us (HELP!) and ask questions. Lots of photos are taken (everyone is particularly impressed by Eloy’s height) and we are thanked for coming. After a few hours we get up to leave, but are first drawn into a dance by the older ladies and they start singing. At the end we get another bag of sweets and of course banh chung.

Before we have even left the road, a scooter from the opposite direction stops. This one gives us another whole bag of Banh Chung! Once again we are at a loss for words; what is going on here! We won’t reach our destination for the day, but that’s OK. We look for a new place to stay and end up in a motel where you can also rent by the hour ….

The northern part of the Ha Giang Loop

The next few days will see one of the biggest challenges of the trip. We cycle towards Ha Giang, best known for the ‘Ha Giang Loop’. One of the most beautiful roads in South East Asia, but also with huge steep mountains and unpredictable weather. The first day is not entirely smooth. Audrey loses her windbreaker, which was tied to the back of the bike, and when we try to stock up on food in Ha Giang, it turns out to be particularly difficult. We find some instant noodles and biscuits and have lunch on a closed terrace. The owner turns out to be there after all and kindly arrives with hot water, more noodles and crockery, as our camping crockery is too small, he tries to explain. The homestay where we had planned to spend the night turns out to be closed and we are not allowed to camp there. They point us 10km further up the mountain, but that won’t work at 5.30pm when it’s almost dark. People often don’t realise how much slower you go on a bike than on a motorbike or car. Eventually we find another sign saying ‘Homestay’ and knock on the door. The owner was not there, but a couple of teenagers and their grandmother were. None of them spoke English. The grandmother is sitting on the floor next to an open wood fire in the house, with meat hanging over the fire to dry. It is quite cold outside and our breath makes clouds from the cold. The wooden house has a roof, but no closed walls, and our sleeping hut consists of a few blankets and a bamboo panel separating it from the part where the grandmother sits with the wood fire.

Later in the evening, the young people get together for karaoke. The bamboo walls are anything but soundproof, so when we are invited to join in, we find ourselves singing ‘Het is een nacht’ by Guus Meeuwis through the microphone. The Vietnamese take karaoke very seriously and can go on for hours. Kilos of sunflower seeds are eaten and lots of tea is drunk. At midnight, the music stops, but suddenly the smell of food is in the air. They were preparing food! At 3am we hear them coming upstairs and phone calls, and at 5am the music starts again. At 7am we woke up to the cackling of the roosters and decided to get on our bikes anyway. It really was a special night, Guus!

Despite our fatigue, today we have to climb a mountain with almost 1000 metres of altitude in 18 km. The road is quite busy and slaloming up the mountain is not an option. Audrey almost gets run over by a bus, but we get cheers and thumbs up from many scooter riders. On the way up we stop at a bench for a bite to eat. There are a few houses across the road and soon some curious children come out. They spontaneously give us some sweets. We give them a thank-you card and some toothbrushes from our bags. They giggle and proudly run around with them. At the top, others pose with our bikes and we enjoy the view of ‘Quan Ba Heaven Gate’. The Heaven Gate is open and it shows!

We pull on our gloves and down jackets and roll down the mountain. On the way down we see the famous Twin Mountains or Fairy Breast Mountains. We are on our way to Kai’s homestay. He enthusiastically welcomes us into his big house. The beds are made of mats separated by a curtain. Together with Felix, a German backpacker who is hiking part of the Ha Giang Loop (!), we go looking for something to eat in the village. It turns out to be a typical noodle soup ‘Phở Gai’ and ‘Phở Bo’ (chicken and beef soup), the noodles made on the spot from rice. The rice sheets hang from the ceiling of the restaurant to dry. Back at the homestay, we are invited to drink ‘happy water’ or rice wine and eat again with a group of Vietnamese. And of course, karaoke! Eloy takes the golden microphone and when Audrey hears him singing a Spice Girls duet in the shower, she knows it’s good.

Over the next few days we find our muscles getting stiffer by the day and our fatigue increasing, but the scenery every day is unimaginable. Each day is more bizarre than the last. We pass through small hamlets where people are dressed in traditional clothes. And during one of the lunch breaks we order rice, eggs and vegetables from a restaurant. Moments later, a mobile phone screen is shoved in our faces: Google Translate: “This family paid for you, no need to pay. Have a nice trip!” A Vietnamese family had apparently just paid for our lunch without us having exchanged a word! Unbelievable!

We continue towards Dong Van, where we have planned a rest day. As the road there is a struggle, we’ve taken lots of photos and celebrated the 10,000th kilometre with a photo and video, we don’t arrive until almost dark. But as it turned out, we were riding at sunset between mountains we could never have imagined.

With little energy left, we head straight for the coziest and least cold place in Dong Van. The doors are always open and there is no central heating, even though it is only about 5 degrees outside. Inside we meet Lana and Matt from Alaska. The bikes are parked outside the small restaurant and the flags are clearly visible. As soon as we enter the restaurant they say, “You must be the cyclists on the loop, with the flags on your bikes. We have heard of you from other people. That is crazy!”. Most travellers come here on motorbikes because it is so mountainous. We can take a break tomorrow. We have been together for 14 years and will celebrate with pancakes and a pizza, a change from noodles and rice!

The Happiness Road

After a day of rest, we are back on the road. Today will be another challenging day, but the road between Dong Van and Meo Vac seems to be even more beautiful, although we can hardly believe it. The road is also called “The Happiness Road” and is located in the Dong Van Karst Geopark. This is an area of 2356 km² and tells a lot about the history of the earth. Fossils over 400-600 million years old have been found! It is also home to 17 different ethnic groups who lived very isolated in the mountains before the road was built. The road, almost 200km in total, was built in the 1960s by mostly local people and volunteers using very simple tools. It took years to complete, as entire sections of rock had to be cut out, and 14 people died during construction. Ho Chi Minh nicknamed the road “The Happiness Road” because the construction process was a great collective effort by thousands of volunteers and local people, and because the road would mean a better future for the often poor and isolated mountain people.

However, the road is notoriously dangerous as the gorge is incredibly deep and there are no guardrails. The canyon is one of the deepest in the world, at 700-800 metres, and some slopes are 70 to 90 degrees. Often the road is hidden in the clouds, but we are lucky. The hazy mist seen in the photos is caused by air pollution and the annual fires in the farmers’ fields.

At the end of the beautiful but intense day we try to find a place to camp, but it is difficult because there are fields everywhere or no straight piece of land to be found.Finally, after dragging ourselves over the last little mountains (Audrey is cursing and pushing against the bike by now…) we arrive at what Google says is a “filthy” hotel and go to have a look. The rooms seem OK, there are no cockroaches running around like on the internet, the mattress is a plank, but that’s the rule here, we eat fried rice in the shack opposite the hotel and look straight into the family’s bedroom, Eloy is so hungry he takes another portion, but the lady of the house just smiles and in the morning we decide to just go back for breakfast. Everyone is happy.

Our verdict on the Ha Giang route

It was tiring, cold, the roads were steep and the traffic was heavy and noisy (every vehicle honks!). We often thought we would fail, but in the end every metre is one, even crawling, the scenery is unbelievably beautiful and unlike anything else, and the people are extremely friendly!

As we slowly leave the northern province behind on our way to Hanoi, we notice that it is getting warmer. By now it is 21°C in the afternoon and sometimes we have to cool down in the mountain streams by the roadside. We spend the night in a homestay again, usually around 5 or 6 Euros for 2 people!

The next few days take us through small villages, where we are often invited for rice wine at lunchtime. Sometimes people pose with the bike and once we are stuck behind a broken down tanker for an hour, forcing us to cycle the last few kilometres in pitch darkness. It doesn’t help that Audrey has seen a poisonous snake on the road, but as soon as we get to a village with 2 guesthouses, one turns out to be closed and the other can take us in. The owners prepared some food in their special kitchen and the positive energy slowly returned.

We are now only 2 days from Hanoi. The weather has changed to rain and thunderstorms, but we try to cycle between showers. We spend another night in a homestay, where the owner’s friendly daughter brings us a handmade Vietnamese flag for the bike. The next morning it rains so hard that the road turns into a river, so the people at the homestay offer us to stay for a while and enjoy a hot ban chung, and we see something new again! Dogs with painted ears in all sorts of colours, from purple to bright pink. Apparently this is considered normal and cute in Vietnam.

We use all kinds of little roads between the rice fields, trying to avoid the main roads to Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, as much as possible. It takes longer, but the cycling is much more relaxed and there is much more to see. Today, for example, we are passing huge rice fields where people are working, and here and there there are even graves between and in the fields. It is said that during the war there was not enough space in the normal military cemeteries, so families buried their loved ones on their own land. Rice fields account for up to 82% of the cultivated land in Vietnam! And on average, 75% (!) of daily calories come from rice! Even our current diet consists largely of rice or rice products. Even snacks are often made from rice. And while we are at it, there is white rice, black rice, purple rice, rice noodles, sticky rice, rice cakes, rice paper, rice milk, rice cereal, rice crackers, rice wine and even rice straws.

Hanoi: the capital of Vietnam

We cross one of the big bridges and enter Hanoi along with hundreds of scooters. The city of almost 9 million people is famous for its many scooters. The traffic is heavy and we are overtaken left and right, but with so many scooters the traffic is slow and it is mainly a case of ‘go with the flow’. Through Couchsurfing we met Mark. He is from Australia but has been living in Hanoi for a long time. As we stand in front of a huge skyscraper, the top of which is hidden in the clouds, we have to swallow.

We walk through the lobby of the swankiest hotel/residential tower we have ever been in, dressed in rain gear and with muddy bikes. The receptionists look at us a bit confused and we hardly dare to look at them. The bikes go into the lift and then we fly at breakneck speed to the 35th floor! What have we got ourselves into?’ we think aloud. We sit on a heated toilet seat for the first time in our lives, there is an outdoor pool and spa complex we can use and the view from our bed over Hanoi is just too bizarre for words. Mark takes us to a well-known local restaurant, named after the beer it serves: Bia Hoi. He takes our order in Vietnamese and to our surprise there is even dog on the menu. We are happy to order only vegetarian food and soon a Vietnamese man joins us with a pitcher of beer and we have a pleasant evening. Mark wants to cycle through Laos himself and is keen to hear our experiences and tips. In the morning he takes Eloy out for a typical Vietnamese breakfast, shows him the local market and the coffee culture of Hanoi. Meanwhile, Audrey is recovering from a pulled muscle and does the laundry. The last time everything was thoroughly washed in the machine was over a month ago…. It was about time.

In Hanoi we arrange the visa for Laos. We polish our bikes and wander around the city. We visit Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, where he lies in a glass coffin. For many Vietnamese he was and is a very important man. As a former president, he secured Vietnam’s independence. After his death, the former capital Saigon was renamed after him: Ho Chi Minh City.

There is a lot going on in the streets of Hanoi. Restaurants do their business on the street, cooking, washing up and serving. The small plastic chairs and tables are often crowded with people and a lot of coffee is drunk. Vietnam is the largest coffee producer in Asia and the second largest in the world. Coffee is served in a stainless steel pot called a phin, which is placed directly on top of the cup. It is often served with condensed milk. This is because it was difficult for settlers to find fresh milk. Another typical coffee, especially in Hanoi, is the ‘egg coffee’. Egg yolks are whipped with condensed milk and served over black coffee. This way of serving coffee was also invented in the 1940s because fresh milk was almost impossible to find. We both think it is a special but tasty brew 🙂

We also meet Nina and Quirijn from the Netherlands. They are also cycling and have travelled a similar route. We have been following each other on social media for a while, but now we are in the same place at the same time! It’s great fun to exchange experiences and ideas and hopefully we’ll see each other again.

Boys around the campfire

After being allowed to stay with Mark for a few days, we say goodbye but keep in touch. By now the weather is much warmer and well into the 30s. We navigate out of town and try again to take as many back roads as possible to avoid the busy roads. At the end of the day we look for a wild camping spot. It proves more difficult than expected, but we finally camp under a bridge on the banks of a river. There are a couple of huts nearby and the children have quickly spotted us. First they want to be photographed, then they want to build a campfire. Then they discover Google Translate and more questions follow: If we need drinking water, if we want to come to their house and if they can help us put up the tent. Eloy washes himself in the river and then goes with one of the boys. He is invited to drink tea at the first house and then tea again at the second. The homemade rice wine is also taken upstairs. After toast and rice with freshly caught fish, a drunk man comes in and shouts all sorts of things into his ear. Eloy nods, smiles and answers in Dutch. The children point out that what the man is saying is nonsense. At one point Eloy decides he has had enough and the boys accompany him in the dark to the river where the tent is. To our surprise, the women join the children and sit in a circle around a campfire, which is quickly built. This is how they plan to end the evening. It is almost impossible to communicate with words, but with gestures, laughter and acting we can get a long way. Before the boys leave, one of them shows the following via Google Translate: “I’m really happy to meet you.”

On the way to Laos

Today we cycle the last few metres towards the border with Laos. On the way we pass some people working in the fields. They are making rice paper to eat. Someone quickly shouts for us to join them. They get some drinks and we have to try the rice paper. It has the texture of a thin plate of crackers and has little flavour of its own. Then they arrive with a bunch of bananas for us to take with us!

The scenery up to the border is beautiful. Hills covered in green rice fields and the first mountains of Laos are coming into view. It promises to be another challenge, but we are looking forward to it!

What makes the trip really special are the children, including those in Vietnam

They taught us again what life is all about: kindness, compassion and generosity.

The girl who gives us a homemade paper flag to hang on our flagpole. The boy who puts Pokémon cards on our bicycles to take home. The boy who reappears later to share his marbles and escort us on his own bike to the only restaurant in the village. The boys who kindly ask us to sign their football shirts. The girls who appear on the side of the road and spontaneously share their sweets. The teenagers who give us the thumbs up. The sisters who hold our hands. The boys inviting us to play with a balloon. The sisters who sit next to us in a restaurant and give us some of their Lunar New Year money. The boys from the village who are happy to help us set up the tent, make a campfire and make sure we have enough drinking water. The boy shows a translation on his mobile phone: “I’m so happy to meet you”. The little ones waving their hands and saying “hello“, “thank you” or “bye bye“. And there are many more children who amaze us. Again and again.

They give and share with big smiles. Their enthusiasm and brave attempts to speak in another language, their laughter afterwards. They are the real treasures of this trip, who amaze us almost every day!

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