Lai Chau to Moung Lay, undulating through hills and river. Day 8

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.

Wide 8-lane road in Lai Chau, an oddity by Vietnamese standards, especially for such a small town.

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.

The Vietnamese version of Chinese ‘chung’

Beans and very fatty pork were the usual fillings for this delicacy. Doesnt taste like anything Mom would make at home.

Beans and very fatty pork were the usual fillings for this delicacy. Doesn’t taste like anything Mom would make at home

Just out of Lai Chau, I came across 2 young buffalo herders…

one of whom started showing off his buffalo riding skills.

12 km of easy uphill followed by 26 km of easy downhill later brought me into the dusty town of Phong To. It wasn’t much to look at but at least it had a nicer guest-house than the one in Lai Chau. It promises to be a smooth ride through town in the months to come.

Phong To

The all-wood Hotel Lan Anh in Phong To that overlooks a river; it looks more like a jungle resort than a guest-house where I stopped for a quick meal of baguette and eggs, and coffee. I would be staying at their other identical-looking sister hotel in Muong Lay at the end of today’s ride.

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.

Simply awesome…the road is just visible on the right bank, as it hugs both the river and the mountain sides.

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

In some places, it would simmer down into quiet shallows…

and serene pools with cave-like recesses in the rocks

Arduous terrain, but the Hmong were even more persistent in taming the land to eke out a living.


Some were luckier with their lots

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.

Although warm and cosy, this USD10 room at Lan Anh hotel only provided a fan and TV (no cable) for creature comforts.

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.

Next: Moung Lay to Dien Bien Phu, in the footsteps of the Viet Minh

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RIDE STATS:
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

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Sapa to Lai Chau, through the highest pass in Vietnam. Day 7

Expectations were high as I woke up to very agreeable weather. It was as promised by the weatherman. Anyway, I reminded myself that even if it wasn’t , I’d have gone ahead to Lai Chau anyway. At this stage of the tour, my legs were still fresh (as was my butt) so, one extra day of rest was one day too many.

As I rolled out of the hotel, I remembered to stock up on fuel and water. From now on, it’s better safe than sorry, even if it meant extra weight. I bought some steaming hot, freshly-made sticky rice with corn in front of the market.  Crushed peanuts and sugar were spooned in generously for extra taste. Persimmons grown in Sapa were also thrown into the booty for good measure.

In this part of the world, the sun is up and about at 6am. So by 7, I was already on the road pedalling to my next destination — Tham Tron Pass, the highest pass in Vietnam, 15 km away and 2000 metres high. The ride was easy enough, gently undulating but dotted with the aftermath of numerous landslides.

They had all been cleared and must have happened a few weeks ago when Vietnam was hit by Mekkhala, a serious tropical storm that killed 10 people and laid waste to large swathes of land. I was to witness even sadder images of the destruction that followed in the wake of the storm in the days ahead — the remnants of entire villages wiped out by flash floods.

I was glad my tour started after the worst of the wet season had ended.

Just before I reached the pass, I had my first encounter with an overly friendly Vietnamese. Replying to my ‘hello’ with enthusiasm, he started running along with me and, with a big smile, indicated that he would love for me to go to his house around the corner for some alcohol and tobacco.  I politely declined, but he became more insistent … to the point where he crossed the road and grabbed hold of my handlebar, and repeated his thumb-in-the-mouth and bamboo-pipe-puffing gestures.

I could smell the heady rice wine from his breath. This guy was getting out of hand, and I was ready to give him a blast of my wife’s pepper spray that I kept handy in my shorts pocket for such occasions but, thankfully for him, he restrained himself and finally let go of my bike, disappointed.

My enthusiastic Vietnamese friend who wanted to take me home.

A little later, as I stopped to take a break, 2 cycle-tourers came into view, obviously from Sapa as well. Craig and Tina from Canada and New Zealand respectively. What struck me most was not the fact that they had caught up with me even though they started an hour after me. It was their bikes ; although they had planned to cycle to Vietnam and Laos, they didn’t bring their own steeds; they bought off-the-rack Vietnamese bicycles instead.

The gearing was rather limited but their enthusiasm were not. I would run into them a couple of times again before I reached Oudomxai, but clearly they had to work a lot harder given their choice of equipment. I guess they didn’t want to be saddled with the burden of extra baggage flying in and out of the country.

Crazy Craig and tenacious Tina. Both would pedal all the way to Vientiane on their limited-gearing Vietnamese bikes. Their backpacks were simply tied down to the rear racks and, for hydration, Camelbak bladders in the front basket did the trick.

One sported a rear derailleur while the other used an internal-gearing type of hub.

2 km from Tham Tron Pass, I rode past another tourist site — Silver Falls. Although it was quite high, it didn’t impress me enough to explore it. Anyway,  I’d seen more impressive waterfalls back home in Malaysia. So, a quick shot to document the moment and I was on my way again.

A short climb later, I arrived at Tham Tron Pass. Actually, it’s nothing more than the peak of a mountain top, and the only attraction here were 2 food-stalls. Their menus were the same — hot tea and bbq’ed meat, potatoes and eggs. The scenery, however, was quite splendid. It was misty and cold, too, with a gusty wind that chilled me to the bone very quickly. I was torn between the 2 ladies running the stalls, as they were obviously competing for my attention.

As I walked near to one of the stalls, the owner poured out a small thimbleful of tea and bid me sit and drink and that, more less, sealed my choice. I sat down by the warm fire of the charcoal stove and enjoyed the steaming hot tea. Feeling a bit peckish, I helped myself to some sweet potatoes. Hot drinks and hot food coupled with a friendly smile can do wonders for the soul.

The view from Tham Tron Pass; I could already see sections of the 25km of winding road snaking away into the distance.

Cafe Tham Tron Pass; last F&B stop before the town of Tham Duong at the end of the downhill.

Riding downhill is always exhilarating. Riding 25km of steep and non-stop downhill, with plenty of  sweeping corners to keep you on the edge of your saddle, and with striking scenery as a glorious backdrop, is an adrenaline rush. Behind me was Mt Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam that’s accessible only by serious trekking. The peak was covered in clouds and looked very imposing. I put on an extra sweater, zipped it all the way up to the gills and, with my Buff pulled up around my face and ears to keep warm, I set off for the  lush valley below.

At the bottom, terraced rice fields once again dominated the scenery. The river that flowed through the valley was sparkling in the sunlight as it cascaded over boulders and stones. I felt such a sense of awe and stupefied wonder as I paused to absorb it all in. The mountains were now behind me in all its majestic glory, the peaks of which pierced the clear blue skies.

All I could think of at that moment was “It would be some ride going up in the opposite direction”. The ride from Lao Cai to Sapa cannot rival this side of the mountain for its sheer splendour and raw beauty, not to mention the steep gradient; so I was glad I didn’t have to attempt scaling it in reverse.

The water was strikingly clear and clean; nothing like the ruddy, muddy Mekong.

On the other side of this small bridge, Hmong kids in all their naked innocence, gambolled in the river with unbridled laughter and happiness. They waved to me as any child would. I was just another curious passer-by, who would be gone from their world in an instant. I almost wanted to join them.

Some Hmong believed that cameras could capture the soul of the subject. Sometimes you would have to wait until the last minute, then whip out your camera and take a few shots before they had time to turn away. This group wasn't too amused at my guerilla shooting style.

The descent finally came to a climactic end as I rolled into the town of Tham Duong. The incline started again. Thankfully, it was undulating climbs and didn’t require the granny as much. Shifting to smaller gears, I pushed on at a decent pace for 38 km before the road levelled out near the day’s destination of Lai Chau.

Next: Lai Chau to Muong Lay

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RIDE STATS:
Sapa to Lai Chau – 78km
Max altitude – 2007m
Total ascent – 1245m
Total descent – 1735m
Total distance to date – 114km

Sapa to Tham Tron – 15km gradual uphill
Tham Tron to Tham Duong – 25km steep downhill, many sharp bends
Tham Duong to Lai Chau – 24km gradual uphill, last 14km to Lai Chau easy downhill.