Sunday, March 4th, Sin Ho - Phong Tho (Lai Chau), 196 km
The sun is up but the haze and the cold remain and make the surroundings look like fairy land. A long descend will lead us to Phong Tho. The sun returns, the cold loosens its grip and the fog lifts; we see countless streams and stilt houses scattered all over the valley. The terraced paddy fields are ever-present. We check-in at the Lan Anh Hotel, which is strategically positioned but has seen better days; it is surrounded by a nice green lawn, is mostly made of wood and has modest rooms. We leave our luggage and head out for an 80 km loop trail to the north. We go towards the Chinese border of Jinshuihezen. In Nam Cay we go right taking a steep climb. We travel on the ridge of the mountain, passing through little villages, with terraces of rice and corn. The view of the mountains is impressive, the weather is sunny. In Si Pahy my Google maps shows a little winding road that, pointing towards the Chinese border, goes back south. We ask for information and we are recommended not to take that road. A sign says “Frontier area”. And what do we do? We KEEP GOING!!! It starts off as a concrete road (bad omen), changing to a rather rugged winding downhill dirt road. In front of us the valley bottom and, on the other side of the river, CHINA. We reach the bottom. We stop two youngsters in shorts and T-shirt, who look annoyed showing us the sign in Vietnamese that we just passed. Using Google translator: Check Point State Border. Ops … we are in China. After a few phone calls to their bosses they let us go. We go back the way we came and continue the loop accompanied by the breathtaking landscapes until we are back in Phong Tho.
Monday, March 5th, Phong Tho – Sapa, 130 km
In the morning we take the road that goes SE through Lai Chau and Co Là. We stay on the QL40 and start climbing towards the Tram Ton pass, that, as high as 1900 meters, is the highest mountain road of Vietnam, as well as a twisty one. To the right we see the Farsipan that, with its 3143 meters, is the highest mountain of Indo-China. As we near the pass, panoramic platforms permit safe stopping given the intense heavy vehicle traffic. The view of the bottom of the valley is marvelous, but I start having doubts when a see a fair number of tourists at the pass (we hardly saw any on our way here). As we descend, we see the wonderful Thac Bac and Thac Tinh Yeu waterfalls. Entering Sapa is like one of Dante’s circles of hell: roadwork, dust, crazy traffic, oppressive buildings, chaos, … panic!!! In 17 years it’s the 4th time I come to Vietnam with the intention of reaching to Sapa. But now I want to RUN AWAY! With some difficulty we reach the Charming Hotel, nice and in a central position. The rooms are also nice, bright and clean and this is all we need. We leave the luggage to visit the town. In Sapa Asian featured people are a minority, the Caucasians predominate (tourists). Super-lux hotels and shops for tourists all over. However, not all evil leads to harm, and in the evening, we take advantage of the situation and go to the Belle Spa for a reinvigorating massage followed by a good dinner based on different kinds of food skewers.
Tuesday, March 6th, Sapa – Tung Qua – Sapam 195 km
Today a loop track north of Sapa is in schedule. It’s about 8°C when we leave but as we descend the air gets warmer. We reach Lao Chai, a big frontier city and the temperature is over 30°C. We take the DT 156 NW, along the valley following the Red river. There is no traffic and the view of the river would be nice if not for the Chinese side that displays an incredibly big, elevated, and empty highway. The valley narrows and the climbing road has more and more hairpin bends. We have the Chinese mountains in front and the view is rather pleasant. When the road turns south it becomes more arduous and rugged. It is often interrupted by landslides caused by the heavy rain of the previous weeks, the fords (not impossible) are many, the view becomes harsher, the rare villages cling to the mountain side. Luckily the weather is with us. Vegetation is scarce and there are wide terraced pastures ready for sowing. As we descend towards Sapa, there are more villages full of life. A multitude of children plays in the middle of the road or swims in the ditches. We take many deviations on improbable little roads in the middle of the paddy fields and arrive in Sapa at dusk.
Wednesday, March 7th, Sapa – Bac Ha, 175 Km
We leave early and I know in my heart that I won’t miss Sapa. The cold bites until we reach Lao Cai. We take the QL 40 NW and are back in our habitat: valleys, mountains, secondary roads and a lot of kindness. The climb is gentle, the way smoother than yesterday’s and at every curve we are mesmerized by the landscape. At Murong Khurong we change direction riding southward towards Hanoi. We arrive at the Bac Ha al Huy Trung Family Homestay late in the afternoon and immediately go visit Bac Ha. Hearing instrumental music, we enter a pagoda; they are having a ceremony where a teen in front of the altar is performing a ritual dance, frequently changing his clothing. Money and cigarettes are offered to us too. From what we understand, it’s a rite of passage to adulthood.
Thursday, March 8th, Bac Ha - Thac Ba, 180 km
Trip back to Hanoi, we descend south and leave the mountains behind us, the road becomes gentler, bends grow wider. In Tai Rieu we take the DT152; we are riding in the countryside between marshland, corn plantations and paddy fields. The road that flanks the Thank Ba (a lake we will see by our side for the next 60 km), is splendid, villages full of life, markets. At an intersection we stop when we see a big tent in the middle of a field and hear music playing. We are immediately noted and invited to the party to dance and sing, these Vietnamese are fantastic. A consideration: wherever I were, at midday I saw kids coming from or going to school in their school uniform and carrying backpacks. Dazed by so many people we reach Vu Linh Homestay, isolated near the lake, where we meet a group of Scandinavians riders. After an excellent dinner cooked by the owners of the Homestay and inebriated by the alcohol of some (many) bottles of …. I dunno (maybe distilled rice) we go to bed in our stilt houses under mosquito nets, even if we haven’t seen any yet.
Friday, March 9th, Thac Ba – Hanoi, km 160
Woken up by the chirping of birds, I open the shutters: the view is ….. (no words for it). We are on the lake shore; a fisherman is in the middle of the lake and tropical trees are all around. After a hearty breakfast, we hop on our bikes southbound, the road is good, the heavy vehicle traffic increasing. Stefano gets a flat. Where? In front of a tire repairer. We reach the suburbs of Hanoi and reluctantly head for the Mayfair Apartments. We return our fantastic and unbreakable motorcycles to Tigit and then go right downtown for dinner and a walk on the shore of the Hoan Kiem lake.
“A very special thank you to GIVI Vietnam and to the MOVE TRAVEL travel agency of Grezzana (VR) Italy”
Text: Fernando Erbisti – Paolo Cracco