9 – 25 May, 2013 – After strenuous days in the mountains and as Johan had caught a cold we spent a lazy day in Ha Giang before moving on to our next destination Sapa with the highest mountains in Vietnam. It took us three uneventful days on ever undulating roads to get to Cao Lai, a town at the bottom of the mountain that leads to Sapa and a border crossing to China. We’ve never been closer to China than that day!
The next morning was my birthday and Johan organized a nice breakfast at a 3-star hotel next door. When we entered the breakfast room at 6am sharp our table was nicely decorated, ‘Happy birthday’ music was playing and a few minutes later I got a bunch of flowers and balloons! What a lovely surprise.
By 7am we had filled our stomachs with yummy food, decorated my bike nicely and were ready for another challenge. 36km uphill to Sapa, while the first 6km started easy as the road was mainly flat with just a few very short climbs not even worth mentioning. The real challenge begun afterwards. To make the climbing more fun (as if it was fun at all!!!) we played a game: boot camp with Baerbel the drill master. One set consisting of three times 20 minutes climbing followed by a five-minute break. The last 20 minutes were followed by a 15-minute break. This worked quite well except for the very end where ascents became so steep that we had to stop almost every kilometer. But we managed all way up to 1,600m in 4.5 hours without pushing our bikes. The rest of the afternoon we relaxed and ate delicious food.
We spent two more days in Sapa to recharge our batteries and while we didn’t really like the mountain resort itself as it is far too touristic for us we enjoyed the cool temperatures in the mid 20’s and the food and relaxed atmosphere of our hotel. We also had great views of the Fan Xi Pan, the highest mountain in Indochina with an altitude of over 3,143m.
The day of our departure was another challenging ride, even if only for the first part as we took Vietnam’s highest road leading over a 2,100m pass. We tackled the tough climb with mostly over 10% grades in about two hours and were rewarded with one of the most stunning views into the valley. From the top we could see the road winding down and were very much looking forward to a 30-kilometer downhill ride! A fantastic one with many stops to take pictures.
We were now on our way to Laos and we continued cycling on heavily undulating roads with at least one long pass to overcome per day. One afternoon, we were trying to cycle a longer distance. We rode with thunderstorms on our heels and decided to stop at around 3 pm at a small kiosk in the middle of the mountains and shortly before a peak to avoid getting struck by lightning. It took another hour until it would really rain and by then we got invited by the owner of the kiosk to stay the night at his house. We happily accepted as we didn’t know if we would be able to reach a town before dusk. In the meantime our host played cards with a few other men and our host’s wife and his three children came back with a few cows from the fields. We spent the afternoon updating our diaries, playing with the kids and observing, a very important task if there is no other way to communicate with the locals.
As the men were playing for money we decided to give some money for the shelter to the wife so it won’t be lost in gambling. However, she immediately handed over the money to her husband and guess what he did with it: gamble! Later that evening we were invited to a simple but very tasty family dinner: sticky rice, river wheet and beef around a tiny table on the ground with a small self-made oil-lamp as there was no electricity at all in the house. And of course we had to drink the infamous rice wine: we killed a half liter bottle, just the four adults of us! At around 8pm we all went to bed tired. We had put up our inner tent in the house to protect ourselves from the mosquitos, a very entertaining happening for our hosts.
At around 11pm we woke for the first from a motorbike stopping and honking in front of the house. A man exchanged a few words with our host and left. Back to sleep again we woke once more about 30 minutes later from more motorbikes, more men and a lot of loud chatting outside. And suddenly our host opened the door and everybody came in, sat down just next to our tent and started playing cards! We were first scared as we thought they maybe came for us to do whatever with us, but all they would do all night long and until 4.30am was gambling, gambling, gambling and drinking rice wine in between. Playing cards is a very noisy affair and comes with a lot of shouting, laughing and talking which basically meant for us that we were unable to sleep all night. By the time the men were finally gone, the cockerel was awake carking every five minutes just underneath our bed, no way to fall back to sleep. At 6.30 am we decided to get up shattered, to leave this gambling place as early as possible. We cooked a noodle soup, had two coffees each and hoped to survive another day in the mountains.
Well, we found out that the next village with a guesthouse was just 12km away, we could have easily made it the day before, but we would have missed a really unique homestay opportunity. And by the way as there wasn’t a closeby well we weren’t able to wash ourselves, neither in the evening nor in the morning.
Cycling wasn’t fun that day and we stopped early after lunch, we were just too tired to continue through the mountains and the heat. In the afternoon, while looking for some food, we met a biology teacher who invited us to his house and when we left he gave us fruit and drinking water as he was so happy being able to practice his little English.
We once again left very early to tackle another long pass and continuous hills, had noodle soup in a small village where we this time successfully denied the rice wine attacks from the neighbouring tables and arrived in Tuan Giao in the early afternoon. We wanted to continue our journey the next morning but were both down with diarrhea later that day and decided to stay another day. A wise decision as I spent most part of the morning on the toilet! We anyway had a great room with a huge terrace in front of it, which was turned into a bar in the evening….. As it was very hot we slept with both doors open (our beds were facing the terrace). The first night Johan already slept while I was still reading when I heard people coming upstairs and sit right in front of our room. I was thankfully wearing a pyjama and got up to close the doors, Johan didn’t notice a thing. Quite embarrassing. The same happened the other nights, we were always hoping for nobody to show up, but it seemed to be a popular place!
We needed another three days to get to the border crossing, rode over two more passes and squeezed in another rest day to do some grocery shopping and recharge batteries once more. As you can see the mountains combined with the heat have taken its toll and Johan already starts talking about our vacation on another Thai island, which is still weeks and months to go. Nevertheless we are glad we took the difficult route as we’ve seen the most scenic landscapes, most original villages and met wonderful people.
In total we spent 69 days in beautiful Vietnam, cycled almost 3,700km and spent more than 240 hours in the saddle. Vietnam has become one of our favorite travel destinations as the landscapes are just stunning, people are lovely, food is great and traffic is much easier to handle as we thought. Despite the language barrier we got a good feel for the Vietnamese culture, we are both very good observers. People are very business-minded, which didn’t always come to our advantage (we paid too much for food as they weren’t really willing to give us much discount) or sometimes too communist-thinking (state-run guesthouses are dirty or completeley neglected and if they didn’t speak English they would rather not give us a room and just say no than making the effort of explaining things differently). We are sad to leave but curious to discover country number 15, Laos.
10 May, Ha Giang – Viet Quang: 60km
11 May, Viet Quang – Pho Rang: 68km
12 May, Pho Rang – Cao Lai: 76km
13 May, Cao Lai – Sapa: 36km
14/15 May, rest days
16 May, Sapa – Tan Uyen: 60km
17 May, Tan Uyen – Than Uyen: 40km
18 May, Than Uyen – Cap Na: 49km
19 May, Cap Na – Minh Giang: 45km
20 May, Minh Giang – Tuan Giao: 39km
21/22 May, rest days
23 May, Tuan Giao – Dien Bien Phu: 79km
24 May, rest day
25 May, Dien Bien Phu – Muang Khua (LAO): 102km
Total distance cycled: 11,866 of which 3,658km in Vietnam