Days 18 to 21: 270 km through the mountainous northwest highlands. Sapa to Dien Bien Phu
Alex a.k.a. The Hill Fiend caught wind of a route recommended for motorcyclists through the ‘Badlands’ of the Tonkin Alps. We looped north from Sapa until we were close to the Chinese boarder and then south to Dien Bien Phu. It was a single road connecting a string of small towns set in deep valleys. The path often clung to the side of river wall with short-sharp ascents and descents. Each turn away from the water meant a long climb to leave one valley and enter the next. Sometimes the road was so steep that breathing precluded talking.
In many places the road had been stripped-back to rock and dust while it was re-built after a landslide. Diggers hacked away at the ground while the traffic dodged past. We also saw construction work on new hydro-electric dams and bridges. The local tribes carried on living in the traditional way immediately adjacent to all of this modernity. The women’s colourful tribal clothes brightened every corner. Their timber and bamboo screened houses were well-built with a single storey living platform on stilts. Buffalo, chickens, dogs and pigs roamed freely below. We saw rice in terraced paddies at lower altitudes and higher we caught the occasional sniff of growing tea. Opium used to be the main crop up here until the government banned it. It may explain why only here every coffee house has a communal bamboo trunk smoker bong thing! Smoking, collecting firewood, fishing in the rivers and selling pineapples seemed to keep the villagers busy, in addition to helping each other build their houses. Female builders or labourers are common.
Our appetites and stomachs expanded to meet the physical challenge. On one typical long day we each ate: a bowl of Pho, two Banh Mi baguettes, two yogurts, two sweet breads, bananas, mouthfuls of honey rice crackers and peanut brittle, a lunch of rice, beef and vegetables, dried mango, three locally brewed beers and more noodles with pork for dinner.
We stayed in small towns with very basic accommodation organised using sign language. Power cuts were common. Dinner options were limited to pointing, and our basic Vietnamese words. We made the mistake of opening a saucepan lid on a road-side cart to ask what was inside. Two large mouthfuls on leaves were handed over. It was chewy and did not taste like any meat I recognised. In response to our confused faces they pointed at one of the dogs running past…I nearly threw up but managed to walk down the street and spit it out when they weren’t looking. The worst experience of the trip so far. I still feel sick when I think about it.
Over four days we rode 280km of beautiful, challenging roads. We climbed a total of 10km vertically and we exhausted ourselves. Our reward has been a new perspective on a little-visited province of Vietnam. It was all worth it to see the landscape and people up-close from the saddle.