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


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.

Chilling out in cool Sapa, and a forced rest day. Day 6

Sapa looks like any other small town in Vietnam — devoid of any redeeming features except for the uncharacteristically Vietnamese Catholic church in the town square, somewhat commanding in its presence. Flanking it are the numerous stalls that cater to tourists – selling everything from roasted potatoes to fake, China-made Columbia trekking pants.

The tallest building in Sapa

The evening of my arrival in Sapa brought in an unwelcome visitor — the rain. It rained incessantly throughout the night, and throughout the rest of the next day. Although I was itching to get back on the saddle for a highly anticipated 2nd day of riding in the mountains, I had no choice but to hole up in my room for most of the dreary, wet and cold day. In between, I walked about the town, eating Pho and fried rice, drinking coffee, and the occasional beer.

The real draw of Sapa is not the town itself; it’s the guided treks to the terraced rice-fields of the Hmong tribe, the Hmong markets and the handmade Hmong souvenirs. But like any popular tourist attraction, it can get a little crowded in the padi fields, and that’s not even counting the numerous Hmong peddlers out in their typically black Hmong finery — as expected of them by the tourists who have travelled far to catch a glimpse of native life that has mostly remained unchanged for hundreds of years.

One of the many food stalls in the square -- I was attracted by the variety of meat and took this shot. When I showed the result to the subject herself, she almost fell off her chair with laughter at her silly, caught-off-guard pose.

Tasty little morsels of pigeons ready for the BBQ pit

Young and old, these Hmong ladies — some as cute and as young as 10 — have been trained by their seniors to latch on to tourists who have shown even the slightest interest in their wares. It’s not surprising that, with so much ‘training’ and exposure, you hear fluent English being spoken by these street-wise kids. Many a tourist have been taken in by these cutesy creatures and even the steeliest resolve not to give in has melted in the wake of “Buy from something from me, buy something from me?”

Shot from the balcony of my room...a bunch of Hmong kids 'making friends' with a tourist couple

Another effective tack by these girls is to ‘act’ as an informal guide, and pretending to want to learn English by speaking with you (well, I guess at some stage they really did do that, but I would think the general flow of conversation would be the same with any tourist). Once they built a certain amount of rapport with you, they just reel you in — hook, line and sinker.

Definitely sisters...possibly twins

Babies make very good props

Waiting for the rain to ease up in front of the busiest section of Sapa, the market.

As in every other country, the market is the place to head to if you want to see real culture.

As enterprising as they come....first they notice you hovering nearby with your camera...

then she sees you shooting, and she'll go...

"1 dollah, 1 dollah" So much for mesmerising the tourist. I hope she doesn't get internet-savvy soon and see her picture here.

The best sticky rice I ever had in Vietnam was from this lady just outside the market entrance -- steaming hot sticky rice mixed with corn; served with finely crushed peanuts and sugar -- absolutely delicious on a cold morning.

The rustic wooden container is carved out of a trunk.

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…

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.

Vietnam-Laos. Planning and preparation…

When Ramadhan ends, my Vietnam/Laos adventure will roll off – on the eve of Aidilfitri, to be exact.

My trusty old Giant is ready. My spanking new Ortlieb panniers arrived from US some weeks ago, complete with handlebar-bag. My legs are ready (I hope), although I could do with a bit more training. I’d also just recently bought a new Casio Protrek on eBay to replace my leaky, 5-yr old Suunto Vector. Ah, the joys of retail therapy.

Hanoi is the first on the itinerary. I will spend 3 days soaking in everything Vietnamese. I will be fascinated for sure. I will be ripped off for sure, too. These Viets are as enterprising as they come. Apparently, everyone has an ulterior motive when they come into contact with you – usually to make a fast Dong. I shall be sparing even with my smiles – who knows, the person behind a reciprocating smile might just charge me for it.

The itinerary:

Hanoi to Sapa – by train (after which the biking proper starts)

Sapa to Dien Bien Phu on the Vietnam/Laos border

Cross the border into Laos, head to Luang Prabang

Vang Vieng , then Vientiane, then home.

1,000 km. 21 days. But in all honesty, I have only just roughly mapped out my route. I have not made a single booking for accomodation of any sort. After all, that’s part of the fun in travelling alone – check out a place; don’t like it?… hey, I’m on wheels, remember? — no heavy backpack on my back. I can roll hither and thither as I please.