Vietnam is spectacular and a real feast for the senses, not to mention the great food, both local and the easy to find western variety. While Sa Pa was only a brief visit, I think it’s a great destination to head for if you’re going to trek in Northern Vietnam as it’s perfectly set up for backpackers and if you need any trekking kit, you can get copies of the very best here.
The hostel (a very impressive building) was lively with other guests and I made friends with another Yorkshireman, a Dutch girl and an Aussie, sharing meals and a few beers (at less than 50p each). The owners spoke good English and my only complaint would be I was not told breakfast was included! Still, it got me into town early.
The town itself is a real tourist trap, with local people approaching you constantly trying to sell you their wares, or hire you a motorcycle. But I liked Sa Pa, there’s a real feeling of ‘culture’ here and everyone seemed friendly enough. The big bonus is that (enough) English is widely spoken in just about every place you’re likely to go to eat and drink, plus you’re more than likely to run into other western tourists.
It’s extremely colourful and you’ll find lot’s of things to point your camera at, along with the hundreds of Chinese and Japanese tourists that visit here. On that note, it’s a good place to stock up on digital memory cards as they are ridiculously cheap.
Leaving Sa Pa, I took the QL4D mountain road heading west towards Lai Chau. I knew the northern part of Vietnam would be a real challenge on a bicycle as the hills are truly insanely steep, hence why many cycle tours actually transit riders to the various hotspots. The scenery though is stunning and as I approached Lai Chau it was like something out of a Tolkien novel, with small jagged peaks dominating the landscape. Truly magical.
I passed some beautiful lakes which had I been able to (easily) reach the shoreline I would have gone for a swim in. As it is I’ll settle for waiting until I reach the beach resorts! Unlike China where every bit of land is taken, there seems to be much more space here and my wild camping has been an absolute joy with no issues finding quiet spots.
The mountain roads in Northern Vietnam are cruel and without doubt the hardest riding of my trip so far, yet the scenery really does balance the scales somewhat. I can understand why this is such a popular destination for the motorcycle tours and many times I cursed that I didn’t have an engine! It is hardcore cycling and as I reached Dien Bien Phu my legs are totally shredded, I need a rest badly.
I must also make mention (for the benefit of others) that the roads are not all in good condition, as I spent the best part of a day climbing a pass which was almost totally off-road riding. Reminded me a lot of the Pamir Highway.
Hello (and goodbye) have been well learned by the locals and I hear it constantly as I pass through the villages, from both the children and adults. I respond with a cheery ‘hello’ back if I have the breath, if not I settle for a wave. It seems a very friendly country (so far) and I’m enjoying it immensely, though my legs aren’t! On that note I’m thinking I’ll visit the war museum here and then possibly take the bus to Hanoi rather than try and negotiate the ‘highway to hell’ which is the road into Hanoi – I really need to recover properly.
So that’s about it for this quick update, more soon…