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Cycling in the northern highlands of Vietnam

by | Jul 30, 2010

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Vietnam would probably not be most cyclist’s first choice as an overseas cycling destination.  There is no doubt that Vietnam is a “third world” country but it is also a delightful place to visit and cycle in. 

Although my experience of Vietnam is limited to only a small part of the northern highlands I would like to think that what I experienced would be typical of most of Vietnam…

 

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The trip was scheduled to start in Hanoi. In order to have a decent look at Hanoi I arrived four days early. I stayed in the Old Quarter which is a couple of square kilometres of narrow buzzing streets teeming with humanity and motor scooters. The traffic seemed chaotic with hoards of scooters, some cars and bicycles. Everyone was blowing their horn as though their life depended on it and it was not unusual to see a bicycle heading up the road into the prevailing traffic or a women with baskets on a pole wending her way through the traffic. Traffic lights appeared to be cosmetic only. I confined myself to one city block for a while as I was terrified of crossing the road. Then it occurred to me that I had not seen any accidents so presumably life on the road was more structured than it appeared.alt

 

The Old Quarter was fascinating with its markets, streets specializing in a particular commodity and “mini-restaurants” consisting of tiny plastic chairs and tables that appeared on the footpath during the day.

Other parts of the city showed evidence of the French occupation in the early decades of last century. The opera house and some government departmental buildings are examples of French architecture and are found in wide French-style tree-lined boulevards.

There are not a lot of major tourist sights in Hanoi other than a Military museum and Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. The former was mildly interesting to a non-Vietnamese reading visitor while the latter would have macabre fascination for some.

I took a day trip to Ha Long Bay. This is a World Heritage site and is not to be missed if you are in the region. The bay is full of limestone islands and is inhabited by floating communities of fishing families. My day trip consisted of a three hour bus ride to the coast followed by about four hours on a boat cruising among the islands. We went aboard a floating fishing platform with pools of live fish and kayaked through caves into the hollow centre of islands. An overnight stay on a hotel boat is probably a more relaxing way of seeing Ha Long Bay as I had another three hour bone-shaking bus trip back to Hanoi.clip_image006

 

The cycling part of my trip was with a new Zealand based company called Pedaltours. On the first day of the tour I met the other four cyclists in our group and we were fitted to our bikes by our Vietnamese guide. For the technically minded the bikes were Trek hybrids which offered plenty of low gears for the promised hills. Next morning we were transported by mini van about 30 km out of Hanoi to Luong Son. We set off on our bikes accompanied by the guide and followed by the van. Wonderful scenery of green rice fields with workers in the fields and the ever present water buffalo. The last climb of the day took us to about 800 m over 15 km followed by a 15 km descent to Mai Chau.

 

 

 

More great scenery the next morning with changing agricultural activity from rice fields, to apple orchards, bean fields and tea plantations. We climbed steadily to 1200 m then had a wonderful descent for 45 km after lunch. A bad patch of road then forced us into the van for the rest of the trip to Son La.clip_image008

Son La to Dien Bien Phu next day consisted of cycling over two bits of good road while being mini-vanned over the bad road which gave us a cycling distance of 77 km. Dien Bien Phu was the scene of a famous Vietnamese victory where they defeated the French in 1954, finally driving them from the country. We had a rest day here which allowed us time to visit the battle field and museums to be given the full story. On the hill where the French made their last stand we met a veteran of the battle who showed us where the Vietnamese had tunnelled under the hill and blown up the French high command.

Back on the road again we cycled for 97 km towards our next stop at Sin Ho. At this stage we were cycling at altitudes between 400 and 800 m where the countryside was much drier and the rice had yet to be planted. The good road suddenly ceased and became rough with about a 10 cm layer of very fine red dust. The reason for this slowly became clear. A very large hydro scheme was being built which was going to result in the flooding of two river valleys. The road which now follows the floor of the valley was being moved up the side of the hills.

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Leaving the valley we took a side road up to Sin Ho which was at 1600 m. Here we were in quite a remote region and never saw another European face until we reached Lai Chau the next day. We arrived after dark in the middle of a power cut resulting in the one and only time I have taken a shower by candle light.

The road from Sin Ho to Lai Chai was one of my highlights. It was a very quiet road, passing through some small villages and included some long descents and a fairly strenuous ascent (I have included the elevation profile). The usual haziness of the atmosphere in the hills was made worse by the burning off of last year’s corn stubble. The lack of wind wasn’t very helpful. The hotel in Lai Chau was described in our notes as a typical communist era hotel. It was probably “grand” once with it’s moat-encircled restaurant complete with crocodiles in the moat and concrete sculptures of exotic animals. However, the plumbing was definitely in need of modernising. The bath water drained out of the bath and across the floor before escaping down another drain.

 

clip_image012Next day’s cycling was “variable”. We got caught up in several patches of road works and spent time in the mini-van. Thanks to the road works we missed the pleasure of cycling to the highest point of our trip at 1900 m. However, we were able to ride down from the pass to Sapa. We got out of the van at 2 degree C and a considerable wind chill factor and descended as quickly as possible to Sapa at 1600 m before our bits froze off.

Sapa had an unexpected feel about it. It felt like a Vietnamese version of an alpine village. The streets were narrow and there were more tourists here than we had seen for a while. A high tourist presence was evident by the large number of tourist shops selling rip-off versions of North Face jackets and packs. Generally the quality of these products was very good and a disadvantaged person with one short arm would never have known the fake jacket I tried on from the real thing. We had another rest day here and were able to visit an Hmong village and go inside the houses. Although this was a tourist operation it was very illuminating to see what a primitive life style these hardy people live.

It was quite cold when we cycled out of Sapa and headed down hill for 30 km to Lao Cai (altitude 100 m). At this point we were right on the Chinese border. We then rocketed down a river valley for about 50 km on aclip_image014 very smooth road through a number of villages and with great scenery. The real test came after lunch with a 15 km climb to Bac Ha at 900 m.

The main purpose in visiting Bac Ha was to see the market. This is a weekly market and is mostly an important event for the surrounding farmers to bring their produce to market. However, because of high tourist interest there is now a large section of the market set aside for the selling of souvenirs and the streets are filled with women selling souvenirs. Produce for sale ranged from wooden ploughs, corn wine (complete with with worms or scorpions), live ducklings to horses and water buffalo. It is a day out for the whole family.

clip_image016From Bac Ha we partially retraced our route going down the hill for 10 km or so before walking down a path to the river. Next was a river boat ride to a spectacular gorge and finally being off loaded at a village for lunch. Our final cycle ride involved returning back up the river valley to Lao Cai where we were booked into a hotel for a few hours to shower before climbing aboard the overnight sleeper train to Hanoi. In Hanoi we had breakfast and were delivered to the airport.

The whole experience was very enjoyable and memorable. Enjoyable, because of roads which seem to have been purpose-built for cyclists with smooth surfaces, challenging hills and exhilarating, cruisey descents. Memorable for the friendly people, great food and the lack of a touristy atmosphere.