Day 7 - Pa So to Lao Cai
Let me start by saying it's been a while since I did the Day 6 write-up - several months in fact. Apologies for the gap. During this time Pinky has had a number of challenges coming to terms with the injuries he sustained on the first day of the trip, and if I'm honest that incident has affected all of us in different ways. Personally I needed a break from all things Vietnam related because in many ways it was bittersweet and hard to deal with. However I thought it high time I finished what I started, so here we are.
We stayed overnight at the Hotel Lan Anh in Pa So. The hotel had some nice touches but plenty of amusing quirks. We were woken around 5am by loud radio & music being played in the next building, so by 6.30 I was ready to strangle the person responsible. Got up, quick shower and breakfast then we loaded up for the last time to set off.
Our route today would take us through some cracking roads over the pass to Sa Pa and then on to Lao Cai where we would catch the overnight train back to Hanoi. We had done a similar route on NB1 so I was really looking forward to seeing if the road over SaPa was as stunning as I remembered. Also since Jim and Bryan hadn't been with us the first time round it would be interesting to see if it lived up to our own hype following that trip!
We set off from Pa So and took some great roads out through the lowlands which wound their way between mountains and hillsides. Plenty of locals out farming for the day. The roads started out with mixed surface and massive vegetation at the sides of the road as we started ascending up over the hills. Eventually this turned into brand new tarmac that was still being laid. This road led up to Lau Chau, the surface being so good and twisty I'd have loved a run at it on a proper sportsbike.
After an hour or so we stopped at the Gateway Cafe for mid morning refreshments. It was a nice change from the usual downtrodden coffee stop that we'd come to know and love typical of Vietnam but personally a bit too modern for my liking. I suppose you can't stop progress eh.
From here we made our way through the lowlands again before starting up the foothill roads towards Sa Pa, stopping on the way to take many photos of the wonderful scenery.
From the lowlands we hit the road starting to wind it's way up the mountain side. This road continues for around 30km and is simply EPIC. As you can see in the photos we rode through cloud cover then out above it. At one point I rounded a bend behind the others and was watching for Jim's reaction up ahead. As we came out of a left hander a view opened up ahead of us of cloud below and the twisty snaking road out in front above it, I swear I saw Jim do a double-take, something he later confirmed.
The town of SaPa is set way up in the Hoang Lien mountain range. The range includes Vietnam's highest mountain, Fan Si Pan (seriously) which stands at 10,000ft. Sapa itself is around 5000ft above sea level and is often within cloud cover or above it. The town is very popular with outdoor activities types, gap year students, cyclists and motorbike tour groups. As you can imagine, the road leading up to it is your typical epic mountain road with a great surface and bend after bend.
|On the road up to SaPa. You can see the clouds below us just beyond that turn.|
|Even the locals are joining in the fun.|
|Bryan 'on it'.|
|Top of the world!!!!|
Rather than continue all the way up the usual route, once we got to the top before Sapa town we deviated off to a waterfall that Hung knew about. We parked up and had to leave the bikes to walk to the waterfall. He did say it was 1km away but turned out to be more like 2.5km with lots of climbing steps along the way. The waterfall was ok, nothing on the scale of Ban Gioc but a smaller waterfall within a forest. We got back to the bikes a sweaty mess and were subsequently mobbed by some vietnamese tourists who wanted photos of us with the bikes.
Following this we continued for a while until Hung stopped to check directions with one of the locals, looking for a back route which he had heard about. We dropped off the main road down some small gravel roads where locals were running thick electrical cable. We then turned into a valley down a single track that led through some very remote farms. Overall it was a really nice offroad detour of perhaps an hour or so. After this we emerged on some roads that linked the mountainside villages just below Sapa town. The roads were in a poor state but quite enjoyable on a dirt bike. There were lots of backpackers and gap year types kicking around all of a sudden.
|Love shack, baby.|
At some point while we were kicking around these backroads, which were more like motocross tracks, Jim and myself got separated from the group. We realised when we were a few km up the road that we'd missed a turning (probably because we had stopped to take photos so many times) so we called Hung. He directed us back to the lower village below the town itself where he would meet us. At that point Jim and I bolted back along the muddy local road, and it has to be said things got a bit giddy. I was quite hungry so was rushing a bit, I remember getting airborne on some of the dirt ruts and crumbling parts of the track but it was great fun. We eventually found the place Hung had described, which was run by an Australian chap and his wife, so we sat down outside for lunch overlooking the next mountain and the fields below us. The food was great and it was great to just sit, eat and enjoy the amazing scenery before us.
After lunch we packed up and set off for Lao Cai, where we would finish the bike tour. The traffic from Sapa down the other side of the mountain was ridiculous. It was a similar twisty mountain road all downhill, three years ago myself, Phil and Del enjoyed a nice ride down it on our Minsks but today was quite different. There were rather aggressive 4wd vehicles which insist on sitting only a couple of feet from your rear wheel, you can't overtake because there's a continuous stream of vehicles all heading in the opposite direction towards Sapa, or there's not enough visibility or a gap to dive into. Amongst the chaos there was a police jeep with blue lights and siren going, and no-one would even let him through so what chance did we have of making any progress! We sat back a bit and kept in a safe position rather than try to push through traffic just to meet even more traffic. I can recall at one point Hung passing the police jeep on the inside through a bend. Ultimately it was a bit futile so it was nice when eventually the roads levelled out at the bottom of the mountain and the traffic thinned out a bit.
From there it was a dash to Lao Cai, to the by-now-familiar end point of the hotel in the centre. We got the bikes ready to be transported back on the train, sorted ourselves and luggage out then grabbed a pizza and a well-earned beer.
On the sleeper train that night the porter was a lovely girl who joined in with us doing happy water shots, then slept in a cubby at the end of the carriage. Tomorrow we would land back in Hanoi for a few days before flying back to the UK.
So....there ends NBIII the tour, but not the trip or the blog. We had some further escapades in Hanoi on our return which I'll write up soon. The tuktuk was a particular highlight and it still makes me laugh when I think about it.
More to follow.