This section from Kham Duc to Kon Tum is the eighteenth instalment of my bicycle ride from Yunnan to Cambodia – if all goes according to plan. Titled “Slap the Belgian!”, it is simultaneously published on Crazyguyonabike.com, where you’ll find a map with the itinerary and many other bicycle diaries by me and others. I hope you’ll enjoy.

We’d agreed that Tu would take a bus to Kon Tum so she could skip a couple of rides and rest her muscles. I, on the other hand, was going to try to ride to Kon Tum in the shortest time possible – perhaps spending the night in Plei Kan. In return, Tu takes all my luggage and I just take the very necessary: toothbrush, some soap, fresh underwear, an extra jumper and the bottle of opium poppy liquor Tu’s dad had given me.

Kham Duc market
Eating bún and some bánh mì at the market in Kham Duc

We start the day with a good breakfast at the Kham Duc market, which is very lively at this time of the day. A big portion of bun and two baguettes, completed with Vietnamese ice coffee and a coke should help me through the first half of the day. I know there’s a lot of climbing to be done to my first stop at Dak Glei, so I’d better leave prepared.

Tu stays on the Ho Chi Minh highway, waiting for a ride to Kon Tum to come, while I set off. Although the road is far from flat, being unencumbered allows me to make good time, and when I set a fast pace at the beginning, I usually keep that pace.

Flip flop throwing game
These guys were gambling hard cash on their game of flipflop-throwing

The weather report for Kon Tum promises a clear and sunny day, but here in Kham Duc it’s still pretty cloudy and I’m a bit worried I’ll be riding all day under the same overcast skies that have followed me since I’d left China.

Cold weather does make for easier climbing, though, and after my first 30 kilometres, I reach the foot of today’s biggest climb. A climb with so many elaborate switchbacks and curls that they’ve called the pass the “spring” or “screw”. I also remember that there are a few nasty false summits on this ride, so I pace myself.

Screw pass Deo Lo Xo
Plaque announcing the start of the Deo lò xo (螺丝关, screw or spring pass).
Man riding a water buffalo
Some like it slow

The climb is steep, with loads of sections that are over 10%. Somewhere on the heaviest climb, I see Tu’s bicycle on the roof of a minivan that rockets past me. It makes me feel immensely slow but up is the only way now.

After I reach the first and highest summit at around 1168m, there’s a most exhilarating 10% downhill that’s so fast I’m afraid to lose control over my bicycle. I almost reach 74km/h and I’m having trouble keeping my handlebars straight. In the middle of the valley, I come across a familiar sight: the bridge over rice paddies I’d taken a picture of three years ago. The paddies are now empty, but I recognise them immediately.

Majestic views everywhere make the riding worthwhile
Majestic views everywhere make the riding worthwhile
10% hill
A lot of these buggers on the road today
Burnt out bus - this is not a warning, just a real accident.
Burnt out bus – this is not a warning, just a real accident.
Rice paddies
I took this very same picture three years ago

The sun is now out, and I’ve transferred most of the contents from my three-litre water bladder to the much smaller between my hips. Luckily, I have enough energy left to beat the second climb before I again rocket into Dak Glei, a town I really didn’t want to stay in after last time’s hotel misery.

But the town looks different, much bigger. I wonder if it’d expanded. Slowly, it starts to dawn on me what I’d done wrong last time. I had only stayed on the outskirts of the town, where the choice of hotels was depressing to say the least. Three mouldy, dark hotels and one clean without the sink. If I had known the town continued past the bridge, I’d have slept a lot better.

Lunch at Dak Glei
Lunch at Dak Glei: omelet, pieces of chicken, a slab of pork, veggies, rice and a bowl of soup for 40.000 VND including the can of coke.

I stop at a rice restaurant and got a nice, filling lunch in this now lovely, sun-drenched town. I’m surprised that I’m now able to order what I want in Vietnamese – and be understood! Also because supporting gestures go a much longer way than in China. Lunch is 30.000 VND and the complementary can of coke 10.000. You don’t have to be Vietnamese to avoid being ripped off!

I have two more stops in the town. One to fill up my water bladder with three more litres of water and lemon tea, and another to enjoy an ice coffee. Three youths that looked like they were up to no good sat smoking cigarettes and splitting their sides at Home Alone on tv. With the same limited Vietnamese, I’m able to answer a few basic questions about my age, country, marriage, my route and whether I’m not cold. Cold???

One of the towns on the way to Plei Kan
One of the towns on the way to Plei Kan

After I bid them good-bye and clip back in, the real rollercoaster starts. The terrain is still hesitating as to whether it should for a plateau or not and while there are nice stretches of flat, there are also a bunch of immensely steep hills. They’re not marked with percentage signs because there simply isn’t enough space for all the digits.

Fortunately, most uphills are preceded by an equally steep downhill, which means you can just use the downhill momentum, add a little high-gear pedalling and make it to the top without too much extra effort. The day goes on like this, but the sunny weather, the beautiful sights, the lack of traffic and the prospect of maybe making it all the way to Kon Tum tonight keep me going! After all, I’ve done equally long rides with much heavier climbs in Yunnan.

Be as strong as uncle Ho
Be as strong as uncle Ho

When I reach Plei Kan, it’s only 3pm. That means my average speed, despite the massive 20 km climb, lies well over 20km/h. It also means I should be able to continue the last 60 km to Kon Tum and make it before dark. I notice I’ve finished another 3 litres of water so I make a stop for a refreshing cup of sugarcane juice and to buy my final 2 litres.

Sugarcane juicer
The new generation of sugarcane presses has an extra filter so the juice is even purer.

The sights along the way are great. Beautiful sunlit houses against the darker mountain background, kids playing all sorts of games, wedding ceremonies, minority-style houses and inundated plains that glisten in the sun, which is now shining low over the hills. Kids are sniping hellos at me from their hideouts and I can’t believe I’m still smiling after 120 heavy kilometres.

Inundated plain before Dak To
Inundated plain before Dak To

Even when I reach the open plain at Dak To and the wind starts blowing right in my face, I still feel like the going is easy. Only when the sun starts setting around 5.30 and the evening traffic peak intensifies along with the wind, I’m getting a bit bitter. Fortunately, this time there are no annoying bugs hovering over the hot asphalt, with the exception of one, the one that makes your eyes sting and water.

After twenty more difficult minutes and another two steep and windy climbs, I finally reach Kon Tum. I find the Hoi An hotel where I know Tu is staying and receive a great massage after I rinse off the salt caked to my face.

The sun setting over the Kon Tum plateau
The sun setting over the Kon Tum plateau creates pretty reflections in flooded fields

We go out for some spit-roasted chicken rice with a salad and another slab of charcoal-grilled pork, have a coffee and then sink away in the bed with a few cans of beer and an episode of Blackadder.

I’m too knackered to speak. Good night.

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