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Cycling Vietnam (1/2), Days 237 – 248: Sa Pa, Ha Long, Cat Ba

cycling vietnam sa pa

Day 237

The descent into Vietnam made the previous day’s effort worthwhile. It was long, fast and impressive.

the laos vietnam border

On flat ground, women sported umbrella hats, and sewed rice-grass under the heat of the orange glow. As we rode along endless fields of rice paddies, workers brushed past on scooters, busy with trade. Some transported ducks, either to the slaughterhouse or the local market – the ducks’ fate was final, despite the destination. We helped one woman to her feet after a fall. She was thankful; a quick head-nod and we understood her gratitude.

At 28 mph, Rob and I raced into Dien Bien Phu, a border town which was influential during the French–Indo War. The streets were draped with Vietnam flags; bunting hung from one side of the road to the other. Vietnam had wealth, over-population, solid infrastructure, and a subtly socialist society. Reunited with Leo, we wandered the busy streets, and compared first impressions with its neighbour.

“Your cycling style is intense”, Leo mentioned, as we chowed down on a bowl of miscellaneous noodles. We paused. He went on to explain that he would not cycle to Sa Pa with us. It was clear he was tired. We didn’t take long breaks, covered larger distances than he was used to, and his mountain bike set up was naturally slower. But the main difference was that Rob and I had deadlines. We both had jobs to return to, so we had no choice but to make the distance each day. Leo didn’t. He had the freedom to travel slower, so, understandably, wanted to take his time. His decision made sense. I applaud him for having the courage to acknowledge our different riding styles, and deciding to venture on his own, leaving the comforts of a group.

Later that evening, Rob and I were hungry, so we walked across the road to a restaurant and ate frogs. When in Vietnam…

Days 238241

breakfast in vietnam

After one final breakfast with Leo, we said our goodbyes, wished him luck, and returned to our steeds. The ride rolled through rice paddies. The top of a climb opened up to a deep valley with a shimmering lake at its centre. It could have been Loch Lomond, for its similarity was a mirror. We descended for miles until the far end of turquoise. It was late. We left the main road and descended further, towards a desolate beach. An abandoned ship sat a few metres back from the shore, the perfect setting to erect our tents. A floating village lay behind sand dunes, right of where we camped – to disguise our presence we spent the evening talking in hushed tones. We cooked dinner inside the ship, for the grey clouds that had threatened us all day, eventually opened.

wild camping vietnam

cycling vietnam

The rain hadn’t stopped all morning, so we sought shelter at a restaurant. Lunch was a banquet of assorted meats – duck and beef mostly, with flat noodle soup. We sat on child-sized stools, ate with chopsticks, and stared at Komoot trying to digest the amount of elevation we had left. The lunch was indulgent, but I was warm and (somewhat) dry – yet anxious about the incline.

The rain was cold and horizontal; the climb was cold and vertical. Cloud covered any scenic reward, so after an hour of ascent, I zipped up my “waterproof” jacket, pulled the hood over my helmet, and descended into the town of Lai Chau. My gloves refused to protect my numb fingers from the crisp, harsh air. I was frozen by the time I reached Rob, who stood outside a supermarket waiting.

cycling sa pa vietnam

We sat in the supermarket foyer and ate hot dog sandwiches. We were drenched. I wore my down jacket over the “waterproof” – and still shook. We were buying time; time to warm up, dry off and decide our next move. Our original plan was to camp on the outskirts of Lai Chau, but it was already dark. A few sandwiches later, I found a cheap hotel online and persuaded Rob to ditch the tent. He didn’t take much persuasion. Quicker than you can say “sandwich”, we were cooped up in a dodgy guesthouse. The room had half a window pane missing. But, it was dry.

cycling sa pa vietnam

Awake and energised by yet another day of climbing, we set off early. 1,500m in 35 kms. It was tough by anyone’s standards. To add even more spice to our day, we took the scenic route to the start line. It was impressive, Jurassic Park-esc. Rice paddies lay at our feet, buffalos were chained to wooden posts at regular intervals, and artistically drawn peaks, covered in dense jungle, towered into the sky. Roadworks meant the track quickly descended into chaos; deep brown sludge kind of chaos. Luckily, we came out of the situation unscathed and Betty, the bicycle, lived to see another day – although I’m sure she wished she hadn’t.

cycling vietnam

cycling sa pa

Rob shot off to tackle the incline, whilst I relaxed, put headphones in and pressed play on a podcast series. I slowly pedalled up the mountainside. The hour that followed took me high into, and above, the clouds. It was incredible, one of my favourites thus far. The landscape was much like everything I’d seen previously, but it would be hard to grow tired of it. It also wasn’t raining, which helped. The summit was gridlock – heavy with buses dropping off package holiday types. A hand sculpture, reaching out into the abyss, ruined the natural beauty of the valley… but created the perfect backdrop for said types and their Instagram profiles.

cycling sa pa vietnam

cycling sa pa vietnam

mountains in vietnam

The descent into Sa Pa was adrenaline-fuelled; double laned, bouncy tarmac dropped through a cloud inversion. The quick pace and stunning setting resulted in a shot of endorphins and an enthusiastic reunion with Rob. We sat in a Western eatery and replenished burnt calories. In between mouthfuls of pasta, we’d talk back and forth about the day’s ride and analysed our ‘performance’ – slaves to an occasional Strava segment leaderboard review.

mountains in vietnam

Sa Pa was similar to a village in the Alps – cobbled streets, small terraced buildings on steep roads, cosy restaurants and coffee shops. Christmas music echoed from one shop to the next, a welcomed festive reminder – otherwise, easily forgotten on the road. Buildings in Vietnam aren’t built for winter. The guesthouse was colder than outside – there was no chance we’d dry our wet kit, but we tried. Our room was draped in tents, underwear, cycling jerseys, shorts, trousers. No space lay empty.

The next morning, Sa Pa was engulfed in a blanket of thick fog. It was difficult to see one foot in front. A short walk, however, to one of the traditional tribal villages and we found ourselves in a tourist trap, a show put on for travellers. Sa Pa is an interesting place, it’s not real. It’s a town for tourists, which only exists because of tourists. Much like modern-day Venice. We spent most of the day complaining about the cold, the weather, and tourists. That being said, we did play cards and drink coffee. Not all bad.

Day 242

A few days earlier, I was scanning a map of Vietnam. I noticed the city of Lao Cai. A settlement half in China, half in Vietnam. The city is split by a river that runs through the middle, where multiple bridges connect to the two countries. Rob and I had both been to the Chinese border before, but we were keen to see it again. And, maybe, sneak across.

That morning, we left Sa Pa – the fog hadn’t cleared. The following 45 minutes involved cycling along a hairy descent into a grey void. If it wasn’t for headlights from oncoming traffic, I would have been riding blind. It was dangerous. But, as the elevation evaporated, the fog thinned and the temperature rose. By the time we reached the flatlands, all layers were removed bar t-shirts (and shorts).

I had spent the morning day-dreaming about a surprise entry into China. I’d changed the entire route and would cycle to Hong Kong instead. The closer we got, the more my excitement grew. Hello China! Unfortunately, the bridge to China was shut, closed off with barriers. Just like their North Korean neighbours, security guards walked up and down the Chinese side, making sure no one made a run for freedom. It was the third time I’d reached the Chinese border, and the third time I questioned when Xi would uncage his chickens.

chinese border in vietnam

chinese border in vietnam

Deflated, we pedalled south, along small lanes that stuck to the river. The roads were far from quiet; trucks, scooters and cars drowned the countryside. There was no rest bite from pollution or horns. After being forced off the road and beeped at repeatedly, Rob threw his arm in the air and shouted abuse at a passing truck. I felt his pain. It was infuriating. Having experienced a lot worse, my animated-foul-mouth-threshold was high. So, I stayed stationary on the saddle.

It was late by the time we found a camp spot. We placed our tents in between a group of houses – they sat left, right and centre. The spot was situated on a raised concrete platform in a forested area; set back from the road and along a gravel track. We could hear the neighbours from our ‘garden’, so we cooked over whispered conversation – repeatedly turning our head torches off when we heard voices or movement. Over dinner, we agreed to cycle 100 miles the next day – the second time we made this agreement. And the second time we were guaranteed to fail.

Day 243

Keen to rack up the mileage, we were pedalling by 7am. Progress was slow, very slow. Rolling ten percenters put an end to our centurion dream quickly. We were both frustrated. At mile 13 we reassessed and decided to relax and take the pressure off. We continued to follow the river south, heading towards Hanoi. The road took us from one village to another, it was difficult to see any separation. School children drove their scooters in groups. They wore matching tracksuits as uniforms – reminiscent of South Korean or Japanese anime.

That afternoon, the hills flattened and the pace picked up. It was a strong finish, but not good enough – 14 miles not good enough. We could have cycled further, but it would have been a dark end, not possible on a wild camp. A tree plantation, just off the road, was our resting place. It was a beautiful spot, peaceful. But yet again, we were deflated. Over dinner, we analysed the map and saw it was 225 kms until Ha Long Bay.

wild camping vietnam

“Rob, I feel like we’re making no progress. Shall we just cycle to HaLong Bay tomorrow?”, I suggested, half joking.

“Err… yeah I’m keen, but we have to get up early. No messing around”, Rob replied – a nod to my inability to pack quickly in the morning.

“I’m down. Under two conditions: we stop every 50 kms and take a ten minute break. That worked well in Uzbekistan. And, we book a guesthouse or hotel. We haven’t been making the distance because we run out of daylight hours. If we don’t camp, that doesn’t matter.”, I

“Deal. This would be the longest distance I’ve cycled on the trip,” Rob announced in his diluted French accent.

“We have to do it then”, I confirmed.

Day 244

The alarm went off at 4.30am. We packed, quickly ate breakfast (peanut butter and bread) and were cycling by 6am. The day started with rain, but it soon cleared. The school children, their tracksuits and scooters were out in force – in Vietnam school starts at 7am. We stopped 8 km in for Banh Mi – a Vietnamese bread roll with pork.

The 50 km breaks were abided by – and with that we made steady progress. Again, the route took us from one town to another. After lunch, Komoot directed us to an Army barracks – a 20 km detour that wasted valuable time. My frustration with Komoot grew stronger – the developers of the app need to redefine ‘road cycling’. In fact, I was so annoyed that, in my head whilst cycling, I drafted an open letter to the CEO airing my frustration with the app.

Within touching distance of Ha Long Bay and the sun had started its disappearance. Excitement transferred to pedal power and our average speed increased to 16 mph. Not only were our spirits on the rise, but so was the temperature – the last two days saw the elevation drop dramatically. 12 hours after setting off, we arrived at the bay. The town was different from what I expected. Newly built roads acted as the foundations for glistening skyscrapers that lay empty. Ha Long was a ghost town.

Western fast food had been a hot topic for days – so when I saw KFC on a delivery app, a convulsion of uncontrollable salivation ensued. However, it was short lived. There were no drivers available to deliver. With what can only be described as utter disappointment, we were forced to leave the comforts of our hotel and prowl the streets.

Rob was very happy with himself, he’d completed his longest ride of the trip. I was happy for him and happy to be able to share that part of his journey.

Days 245 – 248

cycling to ha long bay

cycling to ha long bay

We caught the afternoon ferry to Cat Ba. As we boarded, two other cyclists flew down the ramp. They were Australian, on a month-long tour of Vietnam, with an extremely light set up. As we floated past the archipelago islands – small, uniquely beautiful rock formations dotted in the ocean – we chatted bike touring. The usual: Where’ve you been? What’s your set-up? How far do you cycle per day? Etc. As a four we rode the short distance to the other side of the island – a uniquely calm and picturesque section of Vietnam – continuing to bond over a shared mode of transport. We agreed to meet Nick and Brendon in town for beer that evening. After we dropped off our kit at a family-run guesthouse (a charming and quiet home), we cycled to the town centre. Joan was waiting, a fellow cyclist I’d never cycled with, but met for beers in Tajikistan and Tbilisi. It was like seeing an old friend. The Australians joined us later, closely followed by a group of backpackers, who invited themselves to our table.

It was three beers and a blur, kind of night.

The Cat Ba islands are populated with hundreds of floating villages. These small communities live (almost) self-sufficiently in houses that bob on the ocean. They have gardens, bathrooms, kitchens, and dogs. There’s even a grocery store. Cars are replaced by boats and kayaks.

kayaking in ha long bay

We were dropped off at one of these homes. We rented four kayaks for the day. Myself, Robin and Joan were joined by two other travellers. We kayaked on calm seas, from one island to another. Joan showed us a secret cove, a circular pond accessible only by floating vessels. After enjoying 11am beers on the beach, we paddled back to Cat Ba. Not a bad morning.

kayaking in ha long bay

Later, we had planned to meet Joan for the England-France game, but I fell asleep (game was on at 2am). I woke up for the second half, saw the score, and went back to bed. Football is never coming home. The next morning, Rob left early. He was off to Hanoi to catch a flight to the US. He had planned a RTW trip in one year, so was eager to get over to North America. I waved him off, unsure of what I was doing.

Having done a quick bit of research, I soon realised I needed to cycle 2,000 kms in 15 days. I only had 15 days left on my visa. Cambodia was the cheapest exit point (re-entering Laos would require another visa), but the most southerly. Decision made: I quickly packed up and left Cat Ba island that afternoon.

I cycled the short distance to Ha Phong – a city on the mainland – and continued to stress about the forthcoming weeks. If I wanted to spend Christmas in Cambodia – I’d need to cycle an average of 160 kms per day.


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