Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Zooming Through Vietnam

The Vietnamese bus tout are convinced they’ll get business from us. “Bus to Sa Pa” they call as we tuck away our passports, re-attach helmets and roll bicycles down a short but sheer ramp from border control into Vietnam proper. “We go by bicycle,” we reply. They shake heads. “No…. you go bus.” I look the youngest and most hopeful tout in the eyes and assure him that we’re very strong. He shakes his head in response: “Sa Pa? You go by bus?”

Cat Cat village rice fields

We cross into the country with Mirko, an Italian cyclist who is also headed up to Vietnam’s premier hill top town. He (perhaps wisely) opts for the bus, leaving us to conquer the 28km climb alone. Pedalling away from the river, the border town of Lao Cai passes by in a blur of motorcycles and baguette stalls before the climbing really begins about 5km in. We’re soon in thick jungle interspersed with roadside shacks selling beer and food, following a road which heads relentlessly up. The heat is a new challenge and almost instantly the sweat factor is so high that the water is rolling off my cheeks.
Three hours later, just as our legs are threatening to turn to jelly, we hit the outskirts of Sa Pa and our incredibly disproportionate reward of a five day break.

A tranquil hill-top village with stunning views of rice terraces and Vietnam’s highest peak, Fansipan, Sa Pa’s stretch of swank hotels and 5-star dining options is about as far from Vietnam-proper as Invercargill is from London. A mist hangs over the valley for much of the week, only occasionally clearing to reveal the rice terraces below. A constant throng of woman from local villages cluster together in small groups along the main street. In a swirl of brightly embroidered garments, they’re in town to sell local handicrafts, but we suspect the bigger business is taking visitors on tours to the villages. Hundreds of camera-toting tourists follow a parade of brightly clad villagers past our hotel pied-piper style every morning, leaving us envisaging their village destination as a vast factory of souvenir manufacturing.

We’re up early one morning to take advantage of an “all you can eat” breakfast buffet in town, and burn off the calories by hiking past Cat Cat village, which lies at the other end of Sa Pa. We’re quickly away from the well-maintained paths lined with souvenir stalls and find ourselves on a path which eventually leads to Fansipan peak. Taking a steep off-piste ‘short-cut’ back to the main path, I get a little too close to nature, resulting in three impressive leech bites, though we never saw the little blighters.

Unusual cloud halo

Arriving in Dien Bien Phu after a few days where our diet has been dominated by rice based products, we enjoy its slightly bigger town feel, staying for a couple of nights and stocking up on Vietnamese coffee.
Justin is cleaning bicycles in the courtyard when a couple of Austrian cycle tourists check in. Philipp and Valeska are also heading home after a long period away and we had a lot to talk about in our last evening in Vietnam. With a big climb ahead of us to the border it made sense to team up to cross into Laos.


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