Unless you’re tenting, your choice of accommodation as a cycle-tourer is often very limited; mostly because your day’s ride usually ends at a predestined town (or in some extreme cases, villages that comprise little more than clusters of wood and bamboo huts), and any further riding will land you in the middle of nowhere.
Lai Chau is not a small town but then, it has no redeeming features either. It’s sole claim to fame is that it switched names with Muong Lay ( so in actual fact, I was now in old Muong Lay, and making my way to the old Lai Chau). The Vietnamese government has embarked on a gargantuan hydro-electric project; as a result of which, many small villages and towns will be submerged underwater come 2010. Right now, the tides of change are sweeping across this part of northern Vietnam.
The new Lai Chau is abuzz with development. In Vietnam, this means mud and dust everywhere. As I rolled into town, the old road leading to it was being rebuilt and widened, and in some sections I was rolling through tyre-deep mud. Just outside of town, a new main road had just been completed, and spanking new government buildings took pride of place along it. Aparently, Lai Chau is now the new administrative centre for Lai Chau district.
I finally decided on a guest-house on the main street in the older side of town, an ugly purple building with fancy Roman columns. It was an air-conditioned room with TV (no cable though) for 170,000 Dong. Not cheap but then again there weren’t many choices either. I didn’t know it then, but a better alternative would have been to push on to Phong To, 30 km away.
The next morning, I didn’t feel like having breakfast in town so I bought 2 baguettes filled with some strange tasting stuff, 2 packets of sticky rice wrapped with leaves (and, as is so common with Vietnamese food, porky strips with generous amounts of lard made up one of the fillings). In any case, Phong To was the next town so I could stop for food and drink.
From Phong To the terrain changes dramatically; the road meanders faithfully alongside the river, with limestone walls one side of the road and the river on the other. The road would also undulate the entire distance to Muong Lay. Throughout most of the ride, I had the road all to myself, which I always consider to be a luxury when touring; there’s not much traffic to interfere with my communing with nature – and this, is nature at its rawest.
The only sounds you hear are your laboured breaths as you try to time it with every down-stroke of the pedal… rhythm is crucial for efficiency when you’re riding up inclines with a full load. The river would also sing its own song in tandem — roaring with impatience when it met with fast-flowing rapids, and gurgling serenely when it flowed into shallower waters.
Every corner would also open up new vistas. Sometimes the road would rise up to about 500 metres above the river and at times almost level with it. It was more like riding in a gorge — deep, rugged and incredibly beautiful; the river cutting through it at the bottom juxtaposed with limestone peaks soaring into the sky. This would go on and on for almost 70 km, all the way to Moung Lay. I wasn’t in a hurry, and somewhere in between, it became one of those moments when I was overwhelmed with God’s unsurpassed handiwork, and I would unashamedly burst out into song, glorifying Him. I didn’t care either who was listening or watching — and sometimes there was an unexpected audience which was startled by my spontaneous song of joy.
Let me unashamedly share with you the simple chorus of this favourite Chris Tomlin song, ‘How great is our God’ that was constantly in my heart as I rode 🙂 Those of you who know this song will know how I felt::
How great is our God,
sing with me
How great is our God,
and all will see
How great, How great
Is our God
Name above all names
You are Worthy of all praise
and My heart will sing how great
Is our God
By the way, if you really, really want to know how this song goes, click here to see Chris Tomlin perform his acoustic version
Soon, the winding, undulating road came to an abrupt end and I had to cross a bridge to get to the other side of the river where the road would continue in the opposite direction towards Moung Lay. The river was now on my right and I could see where I had just come from.
The sun was already low in the sky, and Muong Lay was not too far away. It was a sweet ending to another hard but rewarding day and I was looking forward to a good meal and a good night’s rest at Hotel Lan Anh. Muong Lay turned out to be even smaller than I had imagined. It was situated next to the river and all the buildings along the main street were one-storey, mostly wooden structures; and they all looked very, very old.
5 minutes after I rolled into the courtyard of the hotel, who would come in through the gates but Craig and Tina, the couple I had met 2 days ago in the Sapa-to-Lai-Chau leg. They had been dawdling behind me all this while.
Although Lan Anh was constructed in rustic Vietnamese style with an all-wooden structure, the walls were deceptively paper-thin. Later, I would hear the occupants of the other rooms ( that is, the 3 rooms, and their bathrooms, that shared the 3 walls of my room) so clearly there was practically no privacy at all – including the sounds of their ablutions! To compound it all, a karaoke session somewhere behind the hotel was carrying on in earnest, with some of the participants clearly having reached the bottom of their rice wine bottles.
Thankfully, everyone, including the karaoke singers, opted to retire early that night. But then again, I was already well-prepared when it came to hitting the sack — I had 2 pairs of ear-plugs in my sleep arsenal; one was a plain pair, while the other was a heavy-duty type; not as comfortable as the plain ones but, when firmly in place, an elephant could snore beside me without waking me up.
Hotel Lan Anh is a nice guest-house. In fact, it’s the only one in town that’s decent enough for tourists. Apparently, there were some attractions worthwhile enough in the vicinity that tourists would stop by for a day or two, usually after checking out Dien Bien Phu, the next town on my list.
But being the only guest-house in Moung Lay, it also meant that they could afford to charge a premium, especially for their food and drinks. A plate of fried rice which normally costs 10,000 to 12,000 Dong was going for 3 times the price here! So, I decided that tomorrow, I would be having breakfast in town instead.
And what a breakfast it would turn out to be … I will never forget it for as long as I lived.
Lai Chau to Moung Lay – 108 km
Total ascent – 790m
Total descent – 1455m
Total distance to date – 245km
Lai Chau to Phong To – 12km easy uphill, 26km downhill
Phong To to Moung Lay – 70km undulating all the way