Cycling Vietnam

in Bike Ride, IndochinaComments Off on Cycling Vietnam


Pete, a friend from New Zealand recently joined me for a 2 week cycling trip in North-west Vietnam…

Our hope was to visit the most remote areas of Vietnam and to spend some time over the border in similarly remote parts of Laos, then to meet Pete’s wife and son in Sapa.
We started the trip on 12 April, a time between seasons and said to be one of the best for the region, avoiding the worst of the heat and the rain.

Our route followed and extended from one described in an out of print Lonely Planet Guide, (Cycling in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia). It was a loop, starting and ending in Hanoi and said to be quite commonly followed; although to our surprise we met only one other cycle tourist on the whole journey!

In fact, between leaving Hanoi and getting to Sapa, we encountered only a handful of western tourists of any sort. There was a group on a guided 4wd drive trip, 3 or 4 riding hired motorcycles and a similar number doing it the really hard way, -with backpacks and riding local buses.

We were in the company of the local people the whole time; as we were away from the main tourist ‘strip’ of coastal Vietnam I found them to be very friendly, welcoming and apparently completely honest, -compared with the scams and rip-offs we encountered in our trip to the country in 2007. They were delightful.

Although we could be completely independent, our accommodation was preferred to be in ‘local’ guest-houses or hotels every night, we carried, but never had need to use our tent. As a rule the guest houses were very adequate; relatively new, relatively clean with own bathroom facilities; and relatively cool, most often with airconditioning, although sometimes only a fan; almost always for less than US$10 per night….and sometimes that included breakfast!

We also ate local, preferring the busy local rice and noodle shops or hawker-stalls, streetside and in markets, following the philosophy that ‘if the place was busy, the food was fresh’ . We ate a lot of rice! …but greatly enjoyed the food and had no ill-effects. It too was very cheap, a good meal being never more than US$3-4 per person, -including the beer!

Cycling 100 km on hills in that heat is very thirst-making, we regularly had ‘8 litre days’, that is, our individual water requirement while riding, but we had no problems keeping that up by using iodine to treat the local water. Otherwise we enjoyed canned drinks; used the ice provided with them freely and particularly grew to like the freshly crushed sugar-cane juice as a pick-me-up before a long hill. It’s as good for me as any of the expensive bottled isotonic fluid replacements that are the vogue in western countries!

The roads in general were reasonable, mostly they had been sealed at some time, but often the seal strip was breaking up badly, with enormous holes or was very narrow. Away from Hanoi, the traffic was generally light, usually well behaved and quite considerate of us cyclists. They are well used to cycles on the roads; there are almost as many of those as there are people in Vietnam. The exceptions however were the trucks. They stuck to the middle of the narrow sealed strip, with loud, Chinese-style, multi-tonal horn, blaring from 100s of metres distant, quite unnecessarily and refusing to move aside. We were invariably forced off the road into the rubble. It was for me, a reminder of the behaviour of the trucks in Tibet a year ago!

Similarly reminiscent of that trip were the many kilometres of road-works. There were at times long distances of road reconstruction and as I found in Tibet, where the Chinese were managing it, if the decision is made to rebuild a 100 kilometre stretch of road, then the whole project is undertaken at once, rather than just a few kilometres started and completed at a time. This resulted in us frequently being held-up, waiting, and often having to ride over badly formed road, a lot of rough stone, mud, or in the dry, with passing traffic, blinding, choking dust.

At least (and unlike Tibet), there NO corrugations…when the road is so badly formed, no traffic can drive fast enough to create them! 

Our weather turned out to be generally dry and often very hot, although we had few clear blue skies. There was high cloud-cover for some days and then several days with very heavy smoke haze cutting down the visibility and sunlight. There was no wind of significance at any time. On 2 days it rained heavily and Sapa up in the mountains at 1600m remained, disappointingly, almost completely fog-bound for the time we were there. As a result, unfortunately, my photography, for the most of it, lacks sparkle…

Day 1:  Hanoi to Hoa Binh     (75 km).


Looking at the traffic from the Pacific Hotel balcony in Central Hanoi, the idea of riding out of there, with full panniers and on the wrong side of the road, is a daunting one!


but then if they can do it, -so can we!

We organised our bikes, packed our panniers and prepared ourselves mentally; then with map never far from sight and fingers crossed, we bravely ventured into the fray…out among the bikes, barrows and baskets of the street below. 


In fact it proved easy, -almost anticlimactic. We had no trouble at all with the traffic, it just flowed around us, or we merged with them and although the street names on the signs didn’t always correspond with those on the map, our  clear instructions from the very helpful women in the hotel reception left it quite easy to know where to go. Later as we left the city we had to ask a few simple questions for directions of other cyclists (don’t ever show them the map! -it completely bewilders them…) but we were soon settled on Highway 6 and we couldn’t go wrong from there on.


Most of the ride that day was flat, across rice fields with interesting limestone karst hillocks and although we were by then out if Hanoi, for the most part there was continuous housing as ribbon development along the roadside.


For the whole journey, we were never alone on our bikes and usually the loads they carry are far greater than ours!

Toward the end of the day’s ride we rode through bigger limestone hills climbing to almost 300 metres before dropping into a river valley and the town of Hoa Binh.


Hoa Binh is not spectacular, built at the site of a large hydroelectric dam project on the Song Da River.


The central attraction of any town for me is the market place, it’s the place to go people spotting, to eat, to buy; and check out what everyone else in town is buying…great fruit and vegetables…


…fresh killed chickens, -select your bird and have it killed, plucked and prepared on the spot… (it’s no surprise these chicken workers are so vulnerable to the H5N1 virus! -working in such close proximity to blood, dust and feathers…)


and yes, it’s true, they do eat dog. (Beware the eating places advertising ‘thit cho’…)

Day 2:  Hoa Binh to Mai Chau    (85 km)

About 8 km out of Hoa Binh the first hill climb started, it was humid, showery and hot, climbing to about 350m with cloud obscuring much of the view. It was followed by a rapid descent in a rain shower, -an early warning of how cold it can suddenly get with a combination of rain and altitude!


The sun came out in the valley below, with verdant terraced rice paddies, sugar cane clad slopes and karst hills.


A passing man shared his quite tart plums with us, the look on his face testifies to their acidity!


Down the valley is the town of Muong Khen, nestled beneath high cliffs, jungle covered but ridden with small caves, clefts and bird’s nest sites.


From that low point the road then climbed another valley with sugar cane fields and knobby hills to the second ascent for the day,


a long, steady climb for 12km to 840 m, culminating, with just over the summit,


a grand view down onto the town of Mai Chau on the other side.


It was a great downhill ride to the junction with highway 6 where the side-road to Mai Chau leads off. It’s just a short distance away down a flat valley of rice paddies and tiny villages


We were met at the road junction by a man on a motor scooter, looking out for business for his family run accomodation house. It sounded interesting, we followed him down the narrow road…


…through the rice and beans


and avoiding this; the type of truck who rarely gives way on a narrow road…

Mai Chau is a pretty town in a pretty location and the right distance to be a popular weekend trip from Hanoi. It is also one of the nearest ‘Montagnard’ towns, predominantly inhabited by mountain folk rather than lowland Vietnamese,

(in this area they are known as ‘White Thai’. For that reason, there is quite a tourism business with 2 villages specialising in accommodation, using guest houses of an ethnic White Thai type, -we were being taken to one of these)


Like the others up and down the valley, the villages are compact, tightly placed among the paddies and pools of the rice fields, with no wasted land.


There’s a simple ceremonial gateway, the houses are built on stilts


and here, as it is tourism based, the Montagnard made weaving and other products are on sale




It was refreshing that although there was all this on display to buy, there was little pressure to do so, we were not ‘hounded’ like in the other more ‘western’ areas of Vietnam. 


Our accommodation for the night was in a picturesque spot on the edge of the village



We ate down below in the cool, the food prepared by the hostess


and slept comfortably above on firm sleeping mats, on the slightly springy, airy, split bamboo floor, with mosquito nets…and fans…
It was great accommodation!


With our remaining daylight and the freedom of unloaded bikes we explored up and down the nearby valley. 


Life here in these villages is a strange mix of old and new…


bamboo shacks on rough hillsides and wooden houses of more solid but still very basic construction


the row of satellite TV antennae on the eaves a sign of the new,


but beneath the house the men still labour at cutting planks by hand

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and this woman still grinding her rice the hard way, although on our appearance she was quick to display her second line of employment, hoping for ready cash!


Out in the rice, the women pick out weeds and secondary growth, meticulously, one by one… 

 (it’s an iconic image of Vietnam…green paddies, a conical straw hat, and a pair of buttocks pointing skyward…)


Our evening proved to be interesting. As part of the tourism drive, these villages run complimentary ‘White Thai’ cultural dance shows. We  found however, that the music of our show that night was being completely drowned out by much louder music of a non-cultural variety from the adjacent house. We made the error of leaving ours and going up the stairs next door to investigate; were amazed by the number of tiny female shoes at the door and before we had any chance of escape, were surrounded by a crowd of young Vietnamese women. We had no choice, we were press-ganged to join their karaoke party!!!!

They were young, intelligent, beautiful, almost entirely women, a class of tourism students having a ‘field trip’ -and a great time.

We couldn’t have been more warmly welcomed or had a greater interest taken in our well-being, -but of course it came at a price, -we had to sing! But we made that on condition it was an English song and it transpired that they had only one in their library, something obscure that we barely recognised, but they fortunately knew much better, we didn’t struggle for long as the sung, clapped and swayed to the music…

Their party finished later with the ceremonial drinking of rice ‘wine’, a shared, central pitcher of spiced rice spirit, (no wine that one, – it was near pure alcohol!) from which multiple long straws extended and which we all partook, just a few sips at a time…It was a nice, very heartwarming liquor, it would be easy to have more, but it would certainly be to the detriment of having a headache the next morning! 

It had the effect of rapidly raising the spirits of these young, little people, unused to strong drink, but only briefly as they seemed to equally quickly tire and we were soon able to say our farewells and escape as they all bedded down, in one large communal area, of 80 or so, sleeping mats on the bamboo floor…

(The drinking of this rice wine spirit is widespread, communally at cultural events like this, but also, as we later saw, it is readily available in most of the small eating houses anywhere in this area of Vietnam. It is put out on the tables among the chopsticks, soup-spoons and condiments, usually innoccuously presented in small, re-used, drinking water bottles, (appropriately named ‘La Vie’) and accompanied by small shot glasses. At first we thought the people were quaffing water from these tiny beakers as they ate, but a sniff revealed the truth, it is the ‘fire-water’! Sometimes, when asked to join in, we also enjoyed some, -but only in STRICT moderation of course!)


The following morning we got to see our cultural dance show unimpeded,


a variety of local village dances


with simple music accompaniment.


It too ended with the finale of the rice ‘wine’ of which we all partook, -fortunately in a somewhat diluted form compared with that we had the night before!


Day 3: Mai Chau to Moc Chau (85 km)

From Mai Chau back on highway 6 there was an almost immediate climb, over the ensuing 25 km we climbed from about 200m to 1200m altitude.


Along the way were villages and where the hillsides allowed, terraced paddy fields. The summit was rocky limestone and decidedly cooler, once on the other side, the weather seemed to improve, the sky cleared,  the countryside was less green, it was less humid we seemed to have climbed over a rain ‘barrier’.


With this change there was also a change in the dress of the people we met along the way,


in darker clothes and the women usually with large, black embroidered headress, -these were the Black Thai people.

(Unfortunately they’re also almost invariably, innately camera-shy, it’s neccessary to be devious, -and quick, -to get a photograph!)


This higher and dryer valley down to the town of Moc Chau is known for its orchards


and the growing of tea.


Moc Chau is in a deep part of the valley, but is surrounded by curious, attractive, tree-covered conical hills.


It’s a pleasant town, with a prosperous air and many over-decorated houses


of a ‘wedding-cake’ style with ornate plasterwork, beautiful stainless steel balustrades and often surmounted by a small ‘belfry’ 


although as is no different from anywhere else, street maintenance leaves a bit to be desired…a gaping hole in the footpath is nothing out of the ordinary.


The town is known for it’s fruit and tea, there’s plenty of both for sale on the streets, -fresh and dried -to my pleasure. However, it’s also the centre of a small dairy industry, there’s ice cream of course but the fresh-made Moc Chau yoghurt for breakfast was the real treat.

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Day 4: Moc Chau to Yen Chau  (56 km)

The road from Moc Chau climbs over a small hill to open onto a wide deep valley


which it then gradually descends over the ensuing 30-40 km. It makes for very pleasant riding, gently downhill, but gradually getting wamer again with diminished altitude.


Along the banks of the muddy river and high up the valley walls the land is all cleared and prepared for planting of crops…


… it extends remarkably high in places…


…there are houses perched up on what appears to be unworkable, dry, barren soil…to what end?


…but the people can be seen out there toiling on their land, scratching out a living, it must be a very frugal existence.

(These mountain people are unbelievably hardy folk, incredibly strong for their size and with amazing endurance. Whereas normally about Asia I am accustomed to the local people admiring me for riding a bicycle on hills, in this part of this country what we were doing drew no comment from them at all…they all rode bicycles too, usually without the luxury of gears and carrying loads far greater than ours… I now know my place!)


Further down the valley flattened out, there were mango and lychee orchards


and after, were paddy fields once more.

 We had spent a lot of time admiring the perfect construction of the terraces for the paddies, all so exactly level and all done by hand, how did they get them so right? but we had also wondered how they channelled water uphill from the river from irrigation without needing long canals. We found our answer here and it was just the first of several instances when we really had to admire their ingenuity…


A simple paddle wheel in the river with bamboo ‘buckets’ appropriately angled catch the water below then at the top of the revolution empty into a trough


thence into a bamboo channel to flow into the adjacent terrace.
It’s so simple and cost-effective, built with readily available materials (even the bearings for the wheel axle are only of forked tree…) and completely renewable-energy consuming!

Towards the end of the day’s ride, that river met another and the road turned up that valley to shortly after arrive at Yen Chau.


It’s another pretty town on the banks of an attractive river and the centre of an orchard industry, most notably growing, small, green mangoes, and also prosperous as a result.


That still doesn’t stop the town engineering industry (and all others) from needing to spread its production line onto the street however


-but that’s the way it’s usually done here, -arc welding and spray-painting on the footpath!

As this had been a relatively short day’s ride it was a good opportunity to once again explore with the freedom of an unloaded bicycle. In the surrounding hills there are many roads, rough, unsealed, of 4wd quality, making excellent mountainbike riding and leading to beautiful places,


with little visited villages


and delightful people.


The river can be crossed by doubtful looking suspension bridge, -with loose bamboo poles as deck


and a tangle of rusted steel reinforcing as its main cable support


but with its engineering integrity proved by a man on a scooter, I was happy to cross with my bicycle to the paddy fields on the other side.




The road leads from there through a village and a long way up into the valley to a network of more roads with more houses and hamlets.





It would be possible to spend a lot longer exploring, the scenery is beautiful and riding through it gives a good taste of life in a small village, its animals and it’s people…




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They’re unskilled, mountain folk, they live in beautiful surroundings, appear content, but undoubtedly, for us, it would be a hard life!

Day 5:  Yen Chau to Son La   (67km)

From Yen Chau the road climbed steadily, gently up to a pass


marked by a large monument, at about 800m altitude, then slowly descended through a valley of sugar cane to a large refinery at the small town of Hat Lot.


The road traffic was light and what there was, not menacing in the usual way of trucks…


and this woman with her mobile clothes shop on her bicycle had no reason to be impressed by the load we carried in our tiny panniers!


Beyond Hat Lot there was another short hill climb and after the ragged fields of sugar cane, we seemed to be among some impressively tidy houses and gardens.


The town of Son La began a short time later, but it’s a long town! It stretches for more than 10 km out along the approaching road, we had some trouble identifying the centre when we got there and finding the area our map related to!
Because of the confusion over the map and where we were, we had trouble too finding accommodation. Despite that, the hotel for the night proved adequate, although I had misgivings about the number of stilletto heeled shoes left at the reception desk and who the usual clientel might be…I was concerned we might be kept awake by nocturnal comings and goings…Whether I was right in my suspicions or not, I don’t know, we slept soundly!


From the lookout point above the town its layout becomes clear, we got our bearings. It stretches along a long valley, surrounded by hundreds of curiously conical hills.


We explored,


found a pool game to interrupt with some bad shots (the table was visibly down on one side after all..!) then a badminton game to likewise interfere badly in,(they’re all very good, serious players here!)


then left them to their own sports and instead walked the main streets. They are notable in this town for the eye-catching floral roundabout centrepieces, -there’s a different one on every roundabout…


and of course found the market…

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for more people watching

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and it’s mix of pretty


and not so pretty sights.

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Along the road there was also some type of political parade with, to us, unintelligible speeches, but we were drawn by the many red flags…


Day 6: Son La to Tuan Gaio  (85km)

The road out of Son La was in a bad condition, and it stayed that way for much of this day, we were into an area of major reconstruction.
There was an initial climb to 850m along rough road, a short descent, a climb again to 700m then dropped into a pretty valley before the town of Tong Lanh.



We had there one of several encounters with school children


Peter, the teacher, displayed his skills in crowd control to restore calm

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then, as always, they were the cutest and most delightful kids ever!


It was a pretty ride up this valley


among towering karst hills, paddy fields


and nice villages, with white blossoming trees.


Then began the big 14 km climb of the day, the road under reconstruction leading up a narrow valley between red dirt hills,


climbing steadily and at times steeply to a ridge top at 1050 m. There was just a short fast downhill, before another even steeper and in sunshine, very hot, climb, (we were running out of gears) to the antenna marking the top at 1475m…and a very welcome shop to buy recovering drinks… but we were soon too cold to linger.


Unfortunately our views were too obscured by smoke haze to see clearly the ridges of hills stretching into the distance, but there was still that sense of achievement after that climb!


The road on the other side became a great ride downhill as instead of the reconstruction we had on the way up, it was being completely rebuilt along a different route. We were able to enjoy the tight hairpins and sweeping downhills of the narrow old road,  


-thankfully in light traffic


and down below us were the pretty little farmlets…


‘Our’ narrow old road joined the new one under reconstruction at the bottom of the hill


so we were back into the dust and mud of the road-works, -although we were not the only ones to struggle with the conditions!


Approaching Tuan Gaio the valley opened out to allow more rice fields.
That town is on a flat river plain at the junction of 2 rivers and 2 roads, but is something of a back-water, the few people who arrive here generally just pass on through.  On a bike though, after a testing hill climb like today and with another tomorrow it’s a neccessary stop…but it’s a charming place too!


Backwater as it may be, it is home to colourfully dressed Montagnard people, (Black Thai and H’Mong), the busy-ness of the main street makes it just perfect for people spotting with a long focal length lens…

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but it’s not too busy for live-stock to stray into the streets


and there’s a ‘frontier’ atmosphere about the dusty old wooden houses.



We enjoyed this colourful little place as much as any, we had better than the average food there


and our accommodation was in probably the best house in town! 


Day 7:  Tuan Gaio to Dien Bien Phu  (78km)

This proved to be another hot and dusty day’s ride over roads in various stages of major reconstruction for the whole distance.


From Tuan Gaio there was a short climb through a gorge, then we followed along a pretty valley of rice paddies, karst hills and mud-brown rivers with towering bamboo.




At a stop on a bridge there were older school children to be given a quick tutorial in English, -and even have their exercise books checked by the teacher…




Below, to each side, a swarm of paddle-wheel pumps were churning away slowly, irrigating the paddies.



It was a beautifully lush, green valley, but we shortly after left it to go up a drier, dusty one, among road works and clay…

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the road was clay, the houses were of clay (or clay and wood)


and there was the brickworks made of clay, using clay…clay everywhere…


… the pig was happy in the clay mud


The head-dress of the H’Mong woman added an eye-catching spot of colour to the rural scene.


Poor as the area may be, they’re happy people.


After a lunch stop in the ever-so-dusty, but very friendly town of Muong Ang we started another hill climb and steadily ascended over 400 metres up more rough, rocky road under reconstruction to 1050m and a rewarding view 


then climbed up and down a little further before descending into a gorge with 2 small hydroelectric power stations, -and more major reconstruction!!!


The dust was everywhere, it clearly hadn’t rained for some time, everything was covered and the road was inches deep in it. Whenever a vehicle passed we were blinded, our bikes turned brown, our perspiration made our legs and arms a muddy mess…


Hold-ups were frequent.
It was a great relief when we got out of that road works, down into the valley, on as yet untouched old sealed road, but busy with fast trucks and other traffic.

However, it wasn’t far to Dien Bien Phu and on arrival in the centre of town we found ourselves a room in the People’s Committee Guest-House. The (the committee) run quite old established accommodation houses in various towns, this was our first experience in one and considering our hosts, we were surprisingly impressed with the facilities. Rather than spartan, it was probably our most luxurious. Needless to say; the showers and washing facilities were especially welcome!
Dien Bien Phu is the centre for the region, the most remote major town in Vietnam and is only a few kilometres from the border with Laos.
It is also the site of a significant conflict with the French during the Indo-China war of 1954, the French were beaten here and the Vietnamese are proud of it. Several historical sites are preserved as a result.


There are various museums, bunkers and this old bridge all retained as significant relics,



and a pleasantly formal cemetery of Vietnamese war dead. The French are somewhere else.


As usual the central market in the middle of town was the attraction for me


and this was bigger than most, selling almost everything it seemed;



clothing, houseware;


gorgeous roses


colourful grains



great greens…


gruesome meat…




and even geckos…

… I knew the Vietnamese eat anything that may have any nutritional value and have seen grasshoppers, snakes and other delicacies in jars, but I hadn’t realised they went this far!

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Day 8:  Dien Bien Phu to Tay Trang return ( 76km)

On this day we planned to start on a side trip into Laos, -we did, -but it proved shorter than intended!


We left town in the early, very smoky morning riding about 10 km across flat paddy fields before the road started the climb to Tay Trang.


Fortunately we left the road works behind and started climbing from about 530m altitude; steadily ascended, almost continuously and steeply at times over the whole remaining 25 kilometres to reach an altitude of 1250m at the border post.

The road was sealed, but little used, there were few houses in the area and the views from the jungly hills would have been impressive, were it not for the smoke!

Tay Trang border crossing into Laos has only recently been opened to Western travellers, the situation is far from constant, we were uncertain whether we would be allowed through.


However, at the Vietnamese border we were checked through readily and stamped out of the country, this seemed too easy to be true…and it was!


At the Laos border post about 2 km down the rough road into their country we found a problem. The man who issues the ‘visa on arrival’ was away visiting his sick wife in hospital, they expected him back at 3 -4pm, but were not sure… (if we had pre-arranged our visa it would have been possible to go through)

It was then 11.30am so we ate our lunch and waited, fixed my loosening pannier carrier… and waited…then began to rethink our plans…

It would be 35 km down to the first town in Laos and very possible that the ‘visa man’ might not turn up until much later -or not at all, -so we would end up staying at this border post without facilities overnight. By morning we would, at that altitude, be cold and, without access to shops, hungry. We also had limited spare days and decided perhaps that in the circumstances, (and as Laos is a far less developed country where things are more like to go wrong) we were trying to fit too much into our time, we would not be allowing any contingency for breakdown of bicycle -or body! -perhaps we should be returning to Vietnam.

The Lao officials were very friendly people and helpful as far as they could be, but they just didn’t know and had no way of finding out when their colleague might return, the bureaucracy at that crossing is just not that efficient!

3-4 o’clock also came and went without any sign of the official’s return, so we then, somewhat reluctantly, put plan ‘B’ into action and rode back up the hill to re-enter Vietnam which, as we had multiple-entry visas, was not a problem.

As we were there at the Vietnamese border post, having seen no-one else passing all day, we met the only other touring cyclist of our whole trip, a Korean, who intended to ride through Laos to China, and 3 European hitch-hiking back-packers. After explaining to them the situation down the hill in Laos, and as they did not have visas either, we rode back into Vietnam and left them wondering…

We had seen little of Laos, it was too smoky to even see the next ridge of hills clearly…


…but the salmon-pink datura is pretty!


and the sugar cane juice back in Dien Bien Phu was welcome


Day 9:  Dien Bien Phu to Muon Lay   (102 km)

While in the market finding breakfast that morning we met again the Korean cyclist. After waiting a little for the ‘visa man’ to return, he too had decided to rethink his plans and return to Vietnam; he rode with us for some of the day.

From Dien Bien Phu we started with another moderate hill climb to about 800 metres before a rapid descent. 


into a pretty valley.
There were road works again, but not major reconstruction with big machinery, this was largely by hand, done by men (and women!), the old-fashioned way, rock-splitting and back-breaking…




…but for us, the road rebuilding didn’t go on for too long. We quickly passed on down through the villages,



(Although they were by no means all as substantial, I had to admire the wooden construction of the better houses in this area, strongly built with interlocking beams, wall planks cut carefully to match the curve of its neighbour, lathe turned decorative railings and painted panels


and this little bridge is almost entirely constructed of bamboo, -all apart from the rocks in the bamboo baskets of the supports, -simple, durable and ingenius!)


There were several short climbs along this valley, but generally the trend was downhill for about 50 km, before a final quite long climb once more from 500 to 1050m over 18 km up through jungly hills with few houses, until the small village of Montagnard people near the summit.


(No surprise that I was hot and thirsty, -even the butterflies were after the water on the roadside!)


It was followed however by a rapid descent on good road into the valley on the other side, we dropped to about 300m at the town of Muong Lay





a centre for the area, though not very large.


  The town of Muong Lay seems fated to be flooded


it has been so many times in the past, as the ruins of the old concrete community centre testify and at the loss of many lives, -hundreds!

Now there are plans to build a very large dam for hydroelectricity


downstream from this bridge, -only just above the lake formed by the dam on the Son Da at Hoa Binh. It would back up some hundreds of kilometres, all the way up to and over, -Muong Lay, which is at the junction of the Song Da and Nam Na rivers upstream.

(Bill-boards about the town show the grand plans and include pictures with multi-storey resort developments on a sky blue lake with little sailing boats enjoying a pleasant breeze…. that seems a long shot considering the colour of that river water and the calm humid weather we were experiencing!  I wonder too what will replace the food production lost in drowning all those paddy fields…)


Maybe, like the girl with the bird on a string, the government is just testing to see how far the idea can fly?


Day 10: Muong Lay to Muong Te  (102 km)

This proved to be quite a testing day!

We took a side trip from Muong Lay to Muong Te where it’s about as remote as it is possible to get by road in Vietnam.

As we would stay the night there and then return to Muong Lay we left much of our gear behind, so with lightened bikes we set off after a leisurely breakfast.

It was not a good start however. The sketch map we had from our hotel didn’t make it clear that there was no bridge over the river, even though there was road meeting it on both sides… -neither was there a ferry and it was not a river to ford! We had to back-track, through Muong Lay, then go along the main road and cross 2 suspensions bridges



to get to the road we wanted to be on. It wasn’t hard, but it was 10 km of wasted time… time we later wished we still had!

Once on that road to Muong Te it was only to be another 81 km, however it wasn’t easy going.


It followed up the Song Da River gorge and ran along the hillside, was narrow and under reconstruction for much of its length, we had to wait at times for the road to be clear to pass. That which wasn’t being worked on was dusty, potholed and/or surfaced with rough rocks and undulating with sizeable climbs. It proved to very hard riding, impossible to achieve more than about 10 km per hour average and it was very hot! We were going to take a long time to get to Muong Te, at this rate, we would run out of day!


We continued however, the views in the gorge were impressive, though rather smoke obscured.


The traffic was fortunately comparatively light, it was clear that this was really a remote part and the few people we passed were clearly surprised to see European faces, -especially on bicycles!


It must have been the poorest area we had been in to date, many of the houses along the roadside and in the villages were little more than bamboo shacks.


For the most the land around was on steep hillsides, cleared for cane, corn and other crops where possible, but any flat land was used to the maximum for rice cultivation.



There were several dredges working over the riverbed gravel, maybe looking for gold, but what they were after wasn’t clear.



By about 2 pm when we still had almost 40km to go and were really becoming concerned about the state of the road and how much longer we had to go, we reached the end of the bad road, for the remaining 37 km we enjoyed a narrow strip of tarseal, -albeit rough and broken in places and the sun still very hot,  but it was far preferable riding to that further down the valley! We made much better progress and could get on and enjoy the views, -layer upon layer of hills in the smokey haze.





At the small town of Huoi Leng I found the inhabitants to be quite relaxed and unhurried in the heat…


I excused myself for disturbing their sleep as I passed by


there was not a lot of traffic on the road!


Children were enjoying the coolness of the river, while upstream and down from them the wooden paddle wheels ground the rice…


(Another example of Vietnamese ingenuity…so simple, slow, -but very cost-effective and using all renewable energy!


We also saw here and in many places these mini-hydroelectric generation plants, using a small wier across the river with several turbine/generator units using the energy of the water to power nearby houses…)


After a bit of a hill climb through 2-300m away from the Song Da River we arrived at the town of Maung Te.

It was quite a pleasant town and considering the isolated location remarkably well provided for. The greatest surprise being the town clock with hourly Westminster chimes, -and on time!


We found the people had a lot of time to talk to us, 


the ‘welcoming committee’ kept us chatting for a long time outside out guest-house! We were very hot and dusty, but they didn’t share -or even seem to notice -our urgent need for hot soapy showers!

We enjoyed our evening there, we found a nice restaurant with good food and afterwards stayed out in the street for some time, talking as best we could with the people, they were all there enjoying the evening, we were someone different for them to be interested in and presumably talk about…

(Like many others we met along the way they were all curious about the fact that we were so big, -and hairy…the men would come and compare their height, -most often, almost to my shoulder, and they would tweak the hairs on our arms, legs or chest, -to check that they were real!) 

 Relaxed and at ease with us, they shared food, we played games with their children, Pete was offered and enjoyed  a ride on their motor-cycle, it was one of the more sociable places along on our ride. In spite of its being the most remote place in Vietnam it was probably also the cheapest.


Day 11:  Muong Te to Muong Lay (93 km)

The return trip, not surprisingly was a lot easier than going to there, as we made an earlier start and knew what to expect along the way. Neither was it nearly as hot, the cloud was thickening progressively and it rained later in the day.




We were back in Muong Lay soon after 1pm, allowing time for an afternoon walk in the rain exploring the Montagnard villages along the side roads up the valley.



Day 12:  Muong Lay to Lai Chau  (107km)

It was raining lightly when we left, got progressively heavier and persisted through the whole morning!

From Muong Lay we retraced our path over the Song Da River to follow for several hours along it’s tributary, the Nam Na.


There were several hill climbs as we ascended the valley, but they were made pleasant by the cooling rain! The road was awash with dirty brown water in many places, there were impressive waterfalls as the streams fell into the gorge below us. There was very little traffic, few people were about outside the scattered houses, everyone was inside out of the rain… and of course it was then that we experienced the one flat tyre of the whole journey!

At Pa Tan as we sat undercover in a motorcycle repair shop eating our lunch and considered our alternatives, the rain eased, -we carried on.



It was a very pretty section of gorge from there to the town of Pa So,



for the first time in days, the air was clear, the smoke was gone.
The children were enjoying the lull in the rain to get out of the house


and the farmers making use of the wet to soften the ground for the plough.

Pa So was a very unremarkable town with enormous brown puddles, the most interesting feature being the Chinese border just 10km away and the most impressive, the hill beyond it, which we had to climb!

This was quite a hill climb…from 380m to 1200m, but over a distance of about 15 km and not so hard as there seemed to be plenty of places where it was a little less steep…


Over the summit and after a short ride down the other side was the next big town, Lai Chau.




It’s a real mountain town at over 1000m elevation, settled in a valley, but surrounded by many conical limestone hills,


and the people are a real mix of Montagnard ethnic types, -White H’mong, Flower H’mong, Black Dao,Lu, Nhang and Pu Na….I’m told…

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Whichever they may belong to, the women almost invariably colourful dressers!



even to go to work in the fields…


This was another town where we especially enjoyed our overnight stay.


Our hotel was very new and comfortable, it was cool enough to not need air conditioning, we had open windows and mosquito nets instead. We had probably the best food of the whole trip, although it was at an ordinary appearing com-pho (rice and noodle) house, it was a busy place and the food was excellent.
The owners were 3 young couples and they took a special interest in making good food, they also took a special interest in us and we spent a delightfully funny couple of hours with them after the meal, sharing some rice ‘wine’, having a ‘phrase-book’ conversation, laughing about anything and everything(when it comes to the point, there’s really not a lot in a phrase book to use to make a serious conversation!)


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Day 13:  Lai Chau to Sapa  (75km)

We had to start the day with breakfast back at the good food shop and as it was raining still, there seemed no urgency to leave, -but we had to get on to Sapa.
It was wet and muddy as we rode out and started the first hill climb of the day, through 400m over the ridge behind the town


On a good day, the views must be very special, but unfortunately, we were soon lost in the cloud at 1400m… it was cool up there in the mist, but as we had come prepared wearing merino fleece clothing,  with the steady hill climb, we were not!



The ploughing was going nicely in the wet.
Over the first ridge there was a long descent through a very pretty valley with flooded paddy fields



it was a fast and furious downhill run and we passed most other traffic as we dropped through 700m altitude


until we reached the town of Binh Lu for a lunch stop

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It was a quiet town and there seemed to be nothing going on, but this was to be the first time we to experience the hard sell tactics of mountain women, (it was just the very beginning of the much more that we were going to meet in Sapa)  -once we had been spotted they came from all corners and there was a frenzy of selling!



But it was all good humoured and in the heat of the moment they forgot that they were camera shy…it was a great opportunity to study at very close range their different  styles of head-dress, their elaborate and colourful ornamentation…and black capped teeth…

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…we escaped with our lives, carrying just a few more trinkets and only several thousand Vietnamese Dong lighter…with pressure like that from persuasive women and 12000Dong to the NZ$, you have to buy something!

Out of Binh Lu we were met by a wall of hills disappearing up into the cloud, this was the range we had to climb over to get to the Tam Trong Pass and Sapa.

There was a moderately steep start to the climb across the first hill face then we entered a valley


which we climbed steadily up thereafter, -it was to be a 25km long ascent through 1400m to reach the pass at over 2000m altitude.

Once again we were soon in the cloud and not knowing where we were or how far there was to go made it seem to go on for a long time, -it was about 2 1/2 hours from Binh Lu to the top of the pass! -undoubtedly the longest and highest of our climbs, but probably not the hardest as it was cool.

I’ve hijacked a photo taken by a friend who was over the pass about a month later


-I’m most impressed by the view we couldn’t see!  

In fact it was very cold at the top, there was a collection of small shelters with people trying to sell food, but it was too wet and cold to stay about.


Unfortunately it was only a few minutes into the ride down towards Sapa that we met the beginning of road reconstruction and we were stopped, waiting a as a digger cleared the road…


…we were very cold…


…and although we had plenty of warm clothing that we could still put on, we were reluctant to do so, with all that mud and dirt we knew we would soon be riding through and expecting to be allowed to go ahead any minute….

It was about a 30 minute delay, longer than we expected, but we were right about the mess! It was horrific! The rest of the ride into Sapa was a through a continuous stream of mud and very limited visibility, we were very thankful to arrive in town, be shown the way by a friendly man on a motor scooter (he really wanted us to stay in his hotel), and there in the main street, to find Pete’s family, Rachel and Tim, unknowingly walking towards us! So it was not long before we were enjoying the warmth of hot showers in a nice hotel!

Day 14:  At Sapa.

Sapa remained in or just under the cloud for the whole of the next 48 hours we spent there. Although we kept hoping it might soon clear, we never got to see the tops of the magnificent hills around or nearby Mt Fansipan which at over 3000m is the highest in Vietnam. That was disappointing.
It was also very cold in the misty rain, not surprising as the town is at 1600m altitude; we were needing all of our polyproplene and cold weather clothes now!



It has an alpine atmosphere with a taste of the European, presumably a result of earlier French dominance in the area,


and is a busy place, especially at the weekends.

People come here to go trekking, but when the weather is less favourable (as it was!) more people stay around the town and the markets do a magnificent trade!


The town is centred on the main market place, but it overflows into the nearby streets and square



everywhere, people are out selling  and there’s a lot of pressure to buy…



and not only from working age adults


there are a few who seem really too old…

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 and many too young It’s particularly hard to turn them down when they are so earnest about it and will always take it personally.

But significantly too, no-one’s begging, no-one expects something for nothing.


As well as all the usual clothes, food and produce, the market is the place to find those crafts peculiar to the Sapa area,


the colourful wall hangings,


stuffed toys


and ‘silver’ jewellery, -it’s colourful, all hand-made, even the asking price seems very cheap and with bargaining it can become ridiculous!

Its also an opportunity to watch the other shoppers with less chance of being detected,

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as all these colour traditionally dressed Montagnard people come into town…

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…but the watched are also watching their watchers…


A short walk down the hill out of town and the mist is Cat Cat Village, one of several Montagnard villages in the area which have opened themselves up for tourism and which (for a small fee) you can visit for a taste of village life


and use their waterfall as a photo opportunity.

It was really no surprise to find that there was nothing new to interest me among the houses



but it was a pleasantly leg-stretching walk up and down the hill and the view of the terraces in a moment of near sunshine made it worthwhile, – a little of what the post-card pictures show of Sapa!


Day 15:  Sapa to Lao Cai  (37 km)

This was just a short ride later in the day to meet the train for Hanoi at Lao Cai.

Soon after leaving Sapa we were out of the cloud, and for the second time that day, the sun almost came out again, -briefly!





It was enough to get a few more spectacular views of terraced hills and more of what we had been missing in that mist!




From the village with the ploughing, it was a steady and enjoyable ride downhill along a valley of immaculately terraced hillsides



as we descended through 1200 m to the warmth of the Red River plain below


and a few kilometres on, the town Lao Cai.

It is quite a major centre and right on the Chinese border;


just over the Red River there, -it’s China!

The railway runs through here into China from Hanoi, and the usual way of getting to or from Sapa is by train, -there are several trains a day, but it  is usually an overnight service.

We boarded it at 9pm, stowing our bikes in the rear luggage car along with all the motor scooters, shared a 4 berth sleeping cabin and had a remarkably pleasant trip! Apart from the toilet facilities which are best avoided at all costs, the train was otherwise clean and our bunks comfortable.

It’s not fast, at times the countryside passes at little more than walking pace, -but the 350km distance is covered overnight. You awake as the train enters the city, it crosses the Red River, creeps past the open back doors of houses with people washing, cooking and eating no more than a few feet away. You arrive in the central Hanoi station at 5am, just as the day is breaking and the town is waking up.




Just in time to join in with Sunday morning exercises at the nearby Hoan Kiem Lake…


…or with the millions of others for breakfast on the footpath…

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…or wander in wonder through the narrow streets of the old quarter; -the balconies and wires…

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…lines of scooters and little alleys…

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shop for shoes in the street of shoe-shops, (or clothes in the street of clothes-shops, pots in the street of pot-shops…etc…as you do in Hanoi!)

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…view a passing parade…






 …or even visit another colourful Sunday morning market!

The end of another good cycling trip!


Our route of 1150km over the 15 days is shown on this map. Many of the place names are spelt differently on other maps and many others have changed completely, or been swapped around as about 4 years ago the local government districts were changed and renamed. At times we found it very confusing as the names differed around town and on different maps. These names are the ones  currently being used, -I think!

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