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.