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Northern Vietnam

Sunday, February 9, 2014

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 main square, Sa Pa

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 Sa Pa Hostel

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.

Showing their crafts, the locals of Sa Pa

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.

Balloon lady, Sa Pa

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.

The stunning view as I approached Lai Chau

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.

Along the lakeside

And there are lots of lakes here in Northern Vietnam

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.

The mountain road scenery is breathtaking

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.

Alas, the roads aren’t all surfaced

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.

The local kids always say hello!

So that’s about it for this quick update, more soon…

Sunday, February 9, 2014 at 2:06 pm

So good to see you out of China and sounding happier. I’m now back from Burma which was amazing.
You take care of yourself!

    Monday, February 10, 2014 at 2:46 am

    Thanks Mandy, glad you had a good time. I really wish I’d put Burma on my agenda, but by the time I learned it was open to overland entry it was not feasible for me.

Sunday, February 9, 2014 at 4:04 pm

Some really nice shots. Scenery looks amazing.

    Sunday, February 9, 2014 at 11:46 pm

    What next for you Chris? Nice blog which I’ll read more of…

Sunday, February 9, 2014 at 10:55 pm

Looks great and good camping ground. China did not sound like a good experience. I hope your legs recover from this latest stretch. Would it have helped to be going in a different direction?
Watching with interest..

    Sunday, February 9, 2014 at 11:59 pm

    I’m really not sure Paul, as along with the monster climbs I’ve enjoyed 30+ km downhills. I would be interested to know if the alternative roads from Sa Pa (QL32 and QL279) around and through the National Park (I took the QL12) would be any different, but I doubt it. This area is renowned for it’s hills and has the highest pass (heavens gate) and mountain in Vietnam, which of course I simply had to climb!

Monday, February 10, 2014 at 12:13 am

Ah.. the man of steel. Enjoy your ride through heavens gate and beyond.

    Monday, February 10, 2014 at 6:40 am

    Nice blog and great pic

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