Hand a crayon to a small child and ask them politely to draw some mountains. Most likely your little artist’s method of choice will be to clutch the implement dagger-like and repeatedly stab score marks, lie-detector style, onto the page, leaving behind a faultless hack-saw teeth range of perfect peaks. These may or may not be the mountains of your dreams but they are certainly those that intermittently appeared before us between the blooming (yes, in the sense of mild expletive too) clouds that hung lethargically, and consistently, over the Tonkinese Alps around the much-loved little hill-station of Sapa, our first real port of call in Vietnam. But more about this and coffee-grinder head-gear in a moment.
We were wary upon entry into this first South East Asian country, the slow turning of our cranks demonstrated as much, because you see we had been warned off Vietnam. Numerous travellers (usually irritably fatigued cycle-tourers) grumbled about the hassly, annoying, always-trying-to-rip-you-off experiences that would surely follow for us too. We, however, in our cycling days through the north-west of the country found little, if any, of this. We may not have made life-long buddies here but the only phở (sic) that confronted us was of an altogether different sort.
Our aspirations for Vietnam were deliberately limited. We wanted only a taste. To confirm that the sublime cuisine that encircled our old flat in east London, in the form of a zillion Vietnamese restaurants, had its true origins here. And maybe to see a little of the countryside too. So, our plan was to cut the corner. The north-west corner of the country. Through the hills and hill-tribe lands before finally exiting stage-left into Laos where we would once again steer south. Unfortunately in some senses, this route through Vietnam passed no big towns. Critically, no bike shops. So, in an attempt to search out new bottom-brackets, to eat Vietnamese noodle soup (Phở) better than the stuff we gulped down on a weekly basis back in Hackney and to visit one of the new Seven Natural Wonders of the World, we wistfully decided to abandon the bikes in soggy SaPa while we flew the sleeper train into Hanoi.
We arrived off the train from Hanoi in the half-light. In fact it was not even half light. Maybe only slightly light. Or even pitch black. To be honest, at 4.14 am we were so bleary-eyed that we hardly registered much, but we were confused by shadows floating in the periphery of our vision as we ambled along the ghostly streets in search of somewhere, anywhere, to await midday when we could seek out our crash-mat in the nest of our kind Couch-Surfing host, Caro.
We had no idea about street safety in the wee hours in Hanoi and were a little cautious, being on foot rather than on our twinkle-toed two-wheeled friends. We’d found a park bench in what seemed to us to be a pretty fancy end of town with embassies in old French colonial buildings dotted about in wide European-feeling boulevards.
The shapes and shadows grew more and more numerous. Hoodies, we think? Despite the plush environs of nesting embassies we started fearing the worst. Who wouldn’t in a strange capital city at 4am? One specter ran past us. Another jumped up and across our line of sight, and another onto and then off a bench. And as it dawned, it dawned on us, that these menacing silhouettes tormenting our primal emotions were in fact hundreds upon hundreds of ludicrously early-morning fitness freaks. Mostly over the age of 50 and all out and about taking their rigorous matinal constitutionals. As we strolled (now playing it ever so cool) past Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, the light had well and truly outmuscled the dark. Uncle Ho was presently in Russia visiting his mate Lenin, and being ‘repaired’, so all we could do was gawp at these hordes of Hanoi inhabitants diligently adhering to their daily regimes. We felt vaguely silly about having been even vaguely concerned for our safety, and boldly celebrated with gritty snail phở at 5:30am.
Our days in Hanoi dripped by deliciously as we gorged on croissant, summer rolls and all sorts of fearsome phở that kept us tanked up on our marches around the city. By contrast to Sapa, where the furthest we could see through the thick fog was to the croissant on our plates (if we were lucky), the 19th floor of Caro’s luxury apartment afforded unrivalled views out of this heaving metropolis and an entirely different perspective from our habitual saddle-height observation decks. The energetic buzz that we rubbed up against each day on the streets and alleyways below, however, took on no lesser immensity from such a height, as scooters surged and every other form of traffic imaginable rumbled on through.
Our infidelity to the bikes, with strolling smoothly replacing pedalling, encouraged us even further afield with reports that Ha Long Bay was a mere 3 hours away by bus to the coast. A chance to savour one of the newly crowned Seven Natural Wonders of the World. And for our two pennies-worth, it was worth every penny. Sleeping out on a bobbing junk boat in the South China Sea enclosed by sheer, brooding karst rocks rising out of the sea’s greyey-green at 90 degrees; and we were awe-struck. On a bike you don’t see these things, but the maritime equivalent of our bikes, namely a 2-man kayak, took Sam and Francesca under sea-arches and into stunning, isolated, tropical lagoons with only masturbating monkeys for company. Ah, the joys of nature.
Hanging out in Hanoi and soaking in salty seas had once more re-kindled our energies and desire for the road. We were eager to get out of over-rated Sapa, destroyed by demanding western tourists the vast numbers of which we had not seen probably since leaving London. Within a handful of kilometres we were creaking up the highest pass in the country and past the highest mountain in SE Asia, Fansipans (you can only imagine the fun we had with this name). Creaking, because our mini-tour of Hanoi’s bike shops had been fruitless. Creaking past wonderfully cheery Montagnard tribal folk with an immaculate sense of dress. Traditional outfits remain the norm here and are utterly elegant. As with Yunnan, there are numerous tribes, some of which spread over such a limited area that the sartorial charm can vary markedly from one village to the next.
Our favourite winning outfit entailed a lady from the Black Dao tribe sporting what can best be described as an art-deco coffee-grinder headpiece interwoven into her shiny black hair. No photo sadly, so we will have to leave it to your imagination instead.
As our north-westward road began its curve southwestward and finally westward towards a newly opened border-crossing with Laos, we dropped out of the mountains and into rolling hills that provided our final micro-adventure: an intimate face-to-face encounter with one of the locals, a South Asian Cobra. It slithered out 6 feet in front of our wheels and turned to face us. A raised head and a fanned hood was enough to persuade us to stop. Maybe upon catching a whiff of two unwashed cyclists, we know not why, the hood swiftly retracted and it turned tail and slid off. It was time to leave. We happily did not end up as one of the 30,000 souls (overwhelmingly rice farmers) who are the victims of snake bites each year in Vietnam.
Resting briefly in Dien Bien Phu, a site of great importance for the Vietnamese in their ultimately successful battle to rid themselves of the French colonial yolk in 1954, we readied our limbs once more for the bumpy, less developed roads of Laos that would lie ahead. And, of course, dived into one final steaming bowl of Phở before getting stamped out of the country.
As ever there should be our updated photos here and our route has been updated (here) to some point somewhere in Laos. Irritatingly, Googlemaps only allows 200 markers (very inconsiderate) so we will try to figure a way round having exhausted our quota for next time.