North to Lao Cai and upwards to the highlands of Sapa. Day 4 & 5.

The city of Hanoi had had its fill of me. In truth, I was never really a dutiful tourist. I did not do the full rounds of tourist sites; I didn’t pay my respects to Uncle Ho’s fantastically preserved body, I didn’t contribute anything to the ‘shopping’ economy (I was after all, a cycle tourer and no one expects you to come back with souvenirs when your panniers are somewhat limited in luggage space)… I did however, learnt a great deal about the Vietnamese’s prowess in winning a war at the military museum.

The real cycle tourer' s bike at the military museum. I wonder if that's a Brooks saddle?

370kg!... and here I was thinking how heavy my packs were.

Happy pack-cyclists of the Viet Minh enroute to decimating the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu. It didn't look like they were rolling on sealed roads either.

To get to Lao Cai on the Chinese border, I had to catch the overnight train. Unfortunately for me, all the soft sleepers were sold out, so I had no choice but to settle for a ‘soft seat’ ticket which I bought from a travel agent in Hanoi. Arriving at the train station, which was overflowing with passengers, I wasn’t prepared for the stress that the unfriendly station staff put me through.

First, I wasn’t allowed to push my bike through the main lobby. I had to go behind to a locked gate where goods were unloaded onto the platform. After getting the attention of one of the ladies, she opened the gate for me and promptly asked for my ticket, as well as that of my bike’s. I told her I hadn’t got one yet. Comrade Train Station Officer pointed to the ticketing hall on the other side and I had to push my bike out again.

OK…stress level now up 2 notches.

There was no way I could leave my bike outside while I dashed in to buy a ticket. And then, I heard Manglish being spoken. Aha, Malaysians! I saw 4 young men who were obviously doing the Sapa thing standing around waiting to board the train. After establishing our Malaysian ties, I promptly asked them to keep an eye on my bike while I went to get a ticket. “No problem, go ahead”. I went straight to a ticket counter and told Comrade Ticket Seller what I needed. In a most unhelpful manner, he straightaway pointed to the main lobby where I was just shooed out of a while ago.

Stress level now up 4 notches.

So back to the lobby I went to look for the conductor of this musical chairs game. She told me, in whatever little English she could, that I had to get a ticket from the ticket hall, and then she turned and walked away. Oooooh….

Stress level now up 6 notches.

I could really feel it this time. It was simmering just below the boiling point where the steam was building up its pressure, ready to blow. I was in no mood for comradeship this time, not the least with self-serving bureaucrats. I walked back to where I had just come, passing the 4 nice Malaysian boys and assuring them that I would only be a minute. I went straight to the counter and in my most authoritative voice, firmly told Comrade Tiket Seller, “Ticket for bicycle!” a few times while showing the universal 2 clenched fists in motion sign for bicycle. I was prepared to stay put and not budge until I got what I wanted… he must have sensed my frustration. Finally, he got the message and wrote ‘30,000’ on a piece of paper. It was all over in seconds … the pressure gauge eased up immediately, and I strolled out coolly with ticket in hand.

In typical badly-treated-tourist fashion, I related the sorry episode to the 4 Malaysian boys who nodded emphatically in agreement. After chatting with them a little, and after telling them about my touring plans, they were fascinated and surprised that I was doing it solo. I felt quite famous too, when they asked to take a photograph with humble old me (if you’re reading this boys, I’m still waiting for a copy of that pic to slot it in here 🙂

The 10-hr train ride to Lao Cai was pretty uneventful — well, if you can call it uneventful when 2 seats in front of me was Mr. Fidgety, a young man travelling with his mother and girlfriend, and who never seemed to sit still for more than 5 minutes; walking up and down, exploring other cars, chatting with people; eating, eating, eating…even at 3 in the morning. And then there was Mr. Lecher, clearly a Chinese national on his way home to the motherland — he was unashamedly parading up and down in his suave-looking leather jacket, staring hard at all the girls within the vicinity.

Mr.Fidgety is seen here getting his 40 winks; head on the arm-rest and legs wrapped up in the curtain on the window. A few minutes after this shot, he was up and about again. Mr. Lecher is behind him by the window.

At 6.15am, the sun was already up and the day looked promising. The train was rolling in to Lao Cai, and I was excited at the thought of finally getting in some serious saddle time; and all uphill at that, too.

Lao Cai is a non-descript border town – China on one side of the river and Vietnam on the other. It was warm, humid and very dusty. Outside the train station, the thought of hot Vietnamese coffee and some food pulled me into a cafe that promised such victuals. After a cup of hot, sweet, rich Vietnamese coffee and banana pancake, I sat back with a satiated sigh. Life was good. My adventure was about to begin.

But before that, there was something else I had to do — I rode the 3 km to the Chinese border, just for the heck of it.

Lao Cai train station

I just had to take this shot of my bike ... on the border of China and Vietnam.

...and one of me . Yea, you'd look this good too after a 10-hr, overnight train ride with almost no sleep.

A glimpse of capitalistic leanings of communist China -- the billboard is of one 'Spider King Group of companies', a big-time shoe manufacturer. A quick browse of their website revealed an interesting proclamation: "Standing on the new starting point, Spider King People are making effort to develop “SPIDER KING” as the first international brand with full of passion and the spirit of innovation and never satisfaction".

With that out of the way, I was ready to ride. The destination was the highland town of Sapa; made popular by the French colonial masters as a cool retreat to escape the searing heat of Vietnamese summers.

Highway 4D to Sapa. Fom Lao Cai it's only 38km...should be easy enough, like riding up Fraser's Hill...or so I thought.

The first few km were easy enough. That was when I committed mistake #1. I did not bother to stock up on riding fuel, thinking that there would be stalls along the way. After all, Sapa is a popular destination. How wrong I was. As the day drew on, the weather improved. For cyclists, this is not necessarily a good thing. Clear skies equal hot sun. Halfway through the ride, and after the banana pancake had long since disappeared into the bowels, I felt the first pangs of hunger. The scenery was getting better and better, but no stalls came into view.

The Hmongs were clearly animists in their religious outlook, as can be seen from this strange snake sculpture on top of a little house of worship

Even more strange were these pair of bamboo smoking pipes. It seemed to be an offering for someone who met his end on this stretch of the road. Spooky...

Then came my first encounter with Hmong natives — Black or Red Hmong, I had no idea. But it was a tiny hut and it sold canned drinks and some stuff that passed off as food. The mother, sitting outside, was intent on her embroidery piece, no doubt to be sold to some tourist at Sapa. The daughter was in charge. I picked up a can of tamarind juice, and some biscuits.

The shelf in front is all there is to the stall's offerings.

The biscuit looked suspiciously well-past its expiry date, but I didn't care. It was food...and yes, it did taste expired; and dry and insipid, too. The warm, overly sweet tamarind juice didn't go down too well either.

Inside the hut that served as a stall, the younger brother was hard at work, pounding dried maize in a gunny sack to separate the corn from the stalk.

Inside the hut, the younger brother was hard at work, pounding dried corn in a gunny sack to separate the golden seeds from the stalk.

The pristine valley is brought to life by pristine rivers -- crystal clear and bubbling with cheerful songs over smooth rocks and boulders.

As the day wore on, the incline began to unmistakeably inch steeper and steeper. Fraser’s Hill this ain’t. Not when it’s 10% gradient. At one point, a Hmong boy, who happened to be on the way home, ran alongside me for a good km or so. And he wasn’t even breathing hard! That little act of his charged me up (in fact, throughout the rest of the trip, I would look forward the countless number of kids who kept me energised with their high-fives, ‘hellos’ and ‘Sabaidees’)

The little Hmong runner.

The last 7 km or so were the hardest. Tired, hungry and already half-burnt to a crisp, I struggled at the incessant 10% climbs. It was quite relentless; it was quite clearly time for some drastic measures. Plodding along, I waited patiently until I heard the sound — a  heavily-laden truck in bottom gear inching up the same steep climbs as me. As the truck went passed me, I grabbed on to the rope-ends of the  tail-gate and hung on for a free ride. Although it was only clocking 10kph, it was far better than my miserable 5kph. I hung on to the truck until it reached a short flat and I reluctantly let go. The ‘10% gradient’ signboards were still dotting the roadside, so I waited for saviour #2.

I didn’t have to wait long. This time I hung on until almost at the top. My arms were tired, even with constant switching from left to right, but it was worth it. Sapa town was flat, cool and most of all, there were plentiful cafes and food stalls to replenish my depleted glycogen levels. I wasn’t up to checking out guest-houses so  I simply checked into the first one that I thought was OK, and which only charged a reasonable USD6 for a room. It also reeked mildly of urine going up the stairs, and the windows in the room would leak when it rained later. And, when asked if they provided Internet access (seeing as there was a PC in the lobby), they said ‘yes’. Later, when i came down to send an email to Lilian, my wife, they said “Err… no Internet..cannot”.

That was mistake #2 — NEVER believe the Vietnamese guest-house owner when they say Internet and cable TV is provided. Check to see that there really is a connection, and check out the TV channels so that later when you’re ready to hunker down for the night with Star Movies, it won’t be Vietnamese soap opera instead.

The lacework on top of the bed are mosquito nets, not honeymoon-hotel decorations.

Next, exploring Sapa…

RIDE STATS:
Sat 4 Oct 2008

Lao Cai to Sapa – 38km
Total ride time – 5hrs
Total ascent – 1430m
Total descent – 50m
Total to date – 38km

Lao Cai to Sapa – Uphill all the way, last 8km steep. No decent food stops along the way until almost near Sapa.

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