26th April 2002 Day One Hanoi to Mai Chau
My two years in Vietnam was coming to an end but there was time for one last big bike trip up north. Looking at the map, I had been to most places but there was a gap, the spine of the Hoang Lien Son Mountains. I hadn’t heard much about it but there was a road marked on the map (no doubt just a track in places) and there would be fantastic scenery and loads of ethnic minority people to see. And, of course, it would be a bit of an adventure. Needless to say there was absolutely no information at all about any of the roads or places where we were going. Jackie had been hardened up by her trip to the Far North so was game on to accompany me.
It started as oft times before with the short hop to Mai Chau. Every time we had been, it was slightly different. We were in Vietnam at a time of great change. The country was slowly opening up to the West and they had started a big programme of road building. Just before Mai Chau the road goes over White Stone Pass (Đèo Đá Trắng). Well named because it is a mountain made of chalk and when there is a landslide (of which there were many) it seems like it has been snowing. When we passed they had just started the preparatory work for the road and so the track was covered in white gravel and we were stopped by a land slide no doubt caused by the road building. I identified the spot below on google maps (2021). Obviously the road has been completed, it’s now a beauty spot and there is a row of restaurants there now.
We dropped down the other side and were soon ensconced in out favourite little stilt house home stay in Lac Village. This was also changing. Each time we went there were more places to stay and now I expect it is unrecognisable.
That evening the lady in the stilt house prepared a banquet to the rumblings of thunder which provided the background drums to the croaking of the frogs and chirping of crickets. Despite sleeping on the floor, on a bed of cushions we slept well and contentedly.
Day Two: Mai Chau to Phu Yen
We woke at 6.30 to the usual mist clinging to the mountains but by the time we had had our breakfast of freshly laid eggs, the sun was rising and foretold a fine day. The road climbed up through forested hills and we were soon passing groups of Flower H’mong ladies but dressed very differently to those we saw further north.
Over another pass and then down into the Moc Chau plateau. So far this was the well trodden road to the North West of Vietnam but then we turned off north towards the ferry crossing of the Da river. We were pleasantly surprised that the condition of the road was good and we were soon at the riverbank waiting for the ferry.
We had to wait an hour for the boat but it wasn’t too bad as there were some Pho stalls and my arse was already a bit sore from my first big trip in a while. On the other side, the road hugged the reservoir. Everything was very quiet, no boats on the water and few signs of habitation. We carried on by the reservoir for quite some time and then at the head of the valley there were people working in the paddy fields. Here we saw more Flower H’mong but they seemed to have hair implants which seemed unusual. Only 12kms before Phu Yen the tarmacked road stopped abruptly. But this bit of rough stuff was a pleasure not a pain and added a bit of excitement. In the afternoon light it was perfect and then Phu Yen came into view across a vast ocean of paddy, verdant, almost fluorescent in the sun, set against the dark brooding mountains which were tomorrow’s challenge.
Phu Yen itself was not a bad place, a common mixture of ugly new town and interesting, decaying old. They had built a new concrete market but the main street was still quite pretty, lined with trees and then shops, bike repair shops, Com/pho shops and a few old houses. We checked in at the Phu Hoa hotel (still there).
In town we spotted a few Thai women but with tiny buttons on their tunics not the butterfly clasps and not the headgear seen in other parts eg Son La. We also saw one woman who must have been White Dao who was wearing an orange embroidered bodice and also the odd H’mong – an eclectic mix of people. It is interesting that the ladies of the same minority wear similar but distinctively clothing in different districts. We stopped for something to eat and we were soon joined by an old Thai lady with red betel nut stained teeth. She was very interested in us but I don’t think she was speaking Vietnamese. In fact everyone was friendly and a stallholder offered me some free snacks – in this case deep fried insects! They weren’t too bad. I used to think anything deep fried was edible until I tried deep fried scorpion in Hanoi – Yeeeuch!
Day Three: Phu Yen to Nghia Lo
The following morning we were awoken by the electronic chimes of a public clock across the road. We were soon up and out. The tops of the mountains were hidden in clouds but the weather looked fair for the day. As we left Phu Yen behind the countryside changed quickly to thick jungle. The track was very quiet apart from a few isolated houses. On one tight steep corner the muddy track was a bit too much for Jackie and she took a tumble. She wasn’t badly injured but it took some time for us to get the bike started. Then my bike broke down. Fortunately it was the common problem of a gunked up spark plug. Although a regular problem with the Minsk, spark plugs are easy to replace and very little else goes wrong with them. Not long after here we reached “The wall of mud”. The track was too steep and slippery to tackle normally, so we had to unload our backpacks and then I revved the Minsk and ran alongside it. That was the only way we could get up the steepest part of the hill. I now know why we had seen no other vehicles. Fortunately it was just a short stretch. Later we found a little bit of civilisation and a short stretch of tarmac as we arrived at the junction with the road to Hanoi. 3.75 hours gone and half way to Nghia Lo. We had covered 42 kms. Eight kms later was the village of Ba Khe where we had a very tasty lunch of Pho Ga, the chicken version of noodle soup. As it was the Hanoi road, it was all tarmac from here and the road was flanked by tea plantations, with cloud topped mountains either side of us.
The tarmac made a big difference as the second 40 kms only took an hour and we were soon at the hotel. It was a bit raucous as a group seemed to be having a rather alcoholic lunch but it was a nice hotel with a large courtyard surrounding a banyan tree (from where it got it’s name: Hoa Ban) on one side and an open air Bia Hoi garden on the other. Our hostess, Mrs Hue, I noted in my diary, was very friendly and even spoke a smidgen of English. There must have been something wrong with my bike as I left it at a repair shop in town as we went for a wander to the market. Markets are always interesting and we met another interesting collection of Thai, H’mong and Dao. We decided not to try the barbequed dog but instead settled on some longans which were available all over.
Day Four: Nghia Lo to Mu Cang Chai
We knew it was going to be the “Tough One” as we had to cross the spine of the Hoang Lien Son mountains. We were up early and off by 7:15. Soon after leaving town the “road” turned to cobbles, then narrowed to a track and then the climb up to the first pass. Before long we encountered teams of workmen on the road waving us on. Fortunately it was dry and the road mainly compacted clay, soaring peaks either side disappearing into the clouds. We reached the first pass in good time and then the descent into a broad valley. Here we stopped for a few minutes in a Dao village. The people there were very friendly and not at all shy.
The wide valley came to an abrupt stop and ahead of us was a broad based mountain, most of it covered in cloud. Fortunately the road swerved away and we went over a much lower pass and avoided any rain. We got to Tu Le at 10:20. It was quite a pleasant little town with lots of H’mong and a few Dao people milling about. We had some pho for breakfast washed down with a couple of Bia Hois. With a little trepidation we got on our bikes as up ahead the clouds were getting darker and we could hear rumbles of thunder. We pressed on into the rain but fortunately it was only a light drizzle. This didn’t cause too many problems as although the road was gravelly it was quite firm. We rode on through the forests as the track got near to the spine of the mountain chain.
over Chau Pass
After Tu Le it took us an hour to go 15 kms and we skirted the top of the mountains for some time before crossing over to the other side. What a difference. The clouds parted and it felt like we had been transported to Austria. We drove down through pine forests but unfortunately they had had rain here recently as the road was mud and very difficult going.
Since our trip, they have completed the road and I believe it is becoming quite famous for the rice terraces. Not surprising, but I am so pleased we got to see them when they were still in the wilds.
We arrived in Mu Cang Chai at 3pm. We didn’t really know what to expect, we didn’t even know whether there would be a place to say. It was rather disappointing to say the least. Town was just a collection of grotty houses strung along a dusty road. In the centre there was a few shops, a small market with quite a few Hmong people wandering around and then half a dozen large but empty Government buildings. We were told that there was a government rest house but the person with the keys was no where to be found. We waited rather impatiently outside as we were now muddy and rather sweaty from the day’s ride. Eventually a very sullen woman showed up to show us a very bare and basic room. We decided immediately it was the worst hotel room we had stayed in Vietnam. However the cold shower was refreshing at the very least and after a bit of a lie down we headed into town to get something to eat. We managed to avoid the packs of dogs roaming the streets to find the one restaurant in town. It was already quite lively, as a bunch of blokes had already polished off a few bottles of ruou. Of course we got dragged in but escaped with just a few “Trăm Phần Trăm“s with old “Tin Leg” who was the boss. That night we were in bed by 7.30 and asleep by 8!
Hotel Mu Cang Chai
Just as well we were asleep so early as we were already awake when the public address system got going with the news of the day at 5.30am. They also didn’t have cocks crowing with the dawn in Mu Cang Chai but instead they had the howling of the dogs. We hadn’t actually had a good night’s sleep as we were kept awake by a constant dripping from the ceiling. It wasn’t rain but a leak. This became clear as we emerged from the room to bright sunshine.
Day Five: Mu Cang Chai to Than Uyen
In contrast to MCC, the countryside was very pretty as we set off up a broad river valley along a gravelly road passing a few house and Hmong people. Just before Muong Kim we went through a densely wooded gorge. My diary notes that we passed two foreigners going in the opposite direction but nothing more about them. We left the river and headed into a short stretch of open country before entering another gorge where we were held up as a digger was clearing the road of a recent landslide. The countryside opened up again after this and the road improved markedly into a pretty and wide valley and into the town of Than Uyen.
Approaching Than Uyen
The introduction into Than Uyen was very pleasant – a number of attractive stilt houses, presumably Thai minority, heralded a pretty district capital which was just starting to get uglified by modern Vietnamese concrete wedding cake monstrosities. We checked in at the Government rest house which was actually quite nice. I noted our room had flouncy blue curtains and its own little balcony overlooking the building next door and to the hills beyond. We decided to stay the following day in Than Uyen just chilling out but also going for a ride in the hills around about. We also explored some Thai and Hmong villages nearby and I even had time for a haircut on the street outside the market.
These ladies I think are from the Hmong minority but they are wearing what appear to be Thai headdresses!
Day Seven: Than Uyen to Sapa
This possibly could be another tough day as we had the long hard climb up Fansipan mountain which is often wet and cold. It started off fine, although the road was pretty rough in places. At least it was just fairly low rolling hills. It was even warm enough to ride in shirtsleeves. After 1.75 hours and 38 kms we arrived at the small town of Than Thuoc where we had breakfast. The town itself was surrounded by tea plantations and we had our first sightings of Black Hmong. We left the town and the road turned to rubble which was tough going. Not much habitation but a lot of tilled fields. Just before Binh Lu we came across three or four houses by the road and some friendly Lu ladies came out for some photos. Binh Lu itself was very quiet and we spotted some Lu, Dao Khau and Flower Hmong. I had a few problems with my bike so a few local guys had a look. They changed the oil but not much else but it seemed to do the trick. What a surprise, brunch was a bowl of Pho.
The way up to Sapa was uneventful. The road itself was easily the best we had been on and gave no trouble. The clouds even managed to lift enough to get some good views down into the valleys. We only passed two motorbikes the whole way and a brave cyclist. Two hours from Binh Lu we arrived in Sapa and the sun even came out to greet us.
We checked in at the Mountain View Hotel, our old favourite and by the time I had checked in Jackie had bought a bedspread from a crowd of Black Hmong girls who followed us around town. We were fortunate to get the best room in the hotel – a balcony facing the mountains and a huge window – all for $12.
Being a tourist town popular with foreigners, that afternoon we had the first non rice/pho lunch of the trip – bacon and eggs! And that night we had boef bourginon at the Gecko, already a famous restaurant in Sapa, where we were also treated to a free sound and light show – thunder and lightning. We also went to the Green Bamboo for the “ethnic show” the highlight of which was the Hmong girls playing strips of grass – sounds strange but it’s amazing what tunes you can get out of grass!
The rest of the time we wandered around the market and town. The Red Dao and Black Hmong girls being just as interested in us as we were of them but perhaps for different reasons.
Day Eight: The Final Day
A leisurely breakfast – no pho but we luxuriated in banana pancakes. Then some shopping at the market for presents to take home. And then the final push – mostly downhill to Lao Cai and the train station. We managed to get berths on the night train – what luxury and a great bonus – we managed to get tickets for our bikes on the same train. And we all arrived safely in Hanoi the following morning. Our final bike trip in Vietnam!