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Sapa Vietnam

The Long (cold, wet, windy) Way Around

This is not a tourist trap.
This is not a tourist trap.
Definitely not posed.
Definitely not posed.
Spectacular mountain roads. Could have taken pictures of dozens of scenes like this.
Spectacular mountain roads. Could have taken pictures of dozens of scenes like this.
At a lunch stop in a town somewhere between Mai Chau and Son La. Get used to noodle soup, its all you'll eat.
At a lunch stop in a town somewhere between Mai Chau and Son La. Get used to noodle soup, its all you’ll eat.
Isn't that Charley Boorman? Oh hang on, no it isn't...
Isn’t that Charley Boorman? Oh hang on, no it isn’t…
Jess in her big pink helmet looking out at the scenery.
Jess in her big pink helmet looking out at the scenery.
If I look tired and worn out after a long day of riding, its probs because I am.
If I look tired and worn out after a long day of riding, its probs because I am.

One of the books that inspired me to travel was The Long Way Round – Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor’s epic 20,000 mile overland journey from London to New York, via Europe, Russia, Mongolia and the US.  Think I’ve done ok so far – I’ve managed 9,000 miles on my own already without stepping on a plane.

It was with Ewan and Charley in mind (first name terms, obvs) that Jess and I hired motorbikes and plotted our own journey north of Hanoi into the countryside. We were well aware of the risks of Brits motorbiking abroad, but having weighed them carefully we chose to flatly ignored such unwarranted paternalism: we merrily rented a pair of semi-automatic 125cc Hondas for a week and drew a 450km line on a map along the winding roads north from Hanoi, into the mountains of Sapa.

We could have done this journey on a train, and got there in eight hours. But that’s hardly the point of travelling. Why take eight hours when you could travel for five days? There’s logic there somewhere…

Its actually terribly easy to ride a motorbike, once you get used to it. It’s just like riding a bicycle, really. Fewer pedals, obviously. A bit more machinery. You can go a bit quicker as well if you want, and going uphill is much less hassle. But if you can ride a pushbike, you can ride a basic motorbike, and indeed you really should try it sometime.

We chose a terrible day to commence our journeys into the world of motorcycle exploration. Hanoi – which had been dry and hot for a fortnight previously – chose this of all days to lash us with a ferocious rainstorm which lasted the whole first day. I’m sorry to say that the six hour ride was endured rather than enjoyed. Any scenery there might have been along the way was hidden behind thick theatre curtains of mist, draped a full 360 degrees around us. By the time we arrived at the first destination on our trip – Mai Chau (click for a link to my post about Mai Chau) – we were soaked through and freezing cold.

I’m fairly sure I’ve never enjoyed a hot shower so much in all my life. My bones thawed, my beard bristled with life anew, and we quickly decided to loiter for an extra day in Mai Chau, such was our relief to be dry and warm.

The weather for the journey further north was mercifully much better. The clouds remained, but the rain was gone. The roads dried out and we actually enjoyed two days of very pleasant riding. The tarmac was smooth, the air was cool, the traffic was light. These were perfect biking conditions, I mused with all the authority of someone who’d only ridden a motorbike for a single day.

Our route further north took us first to Son La, a functional but uninspiring town. We stayed in the Trade Union Hotel which turned out to be everything you’d expect a utilitarian socialist relic to be. We continued the next night to Than Uyen, another ordinary town, arriving a little after dark following some minor map reading errors on my part, and taking a cheap room in the only guesthouse in town (at least, the only one we could find).

Mai Chau was lovely. Son La and Than Uyen didn’t have much to say for themselves. But the whole point of this journey wasn’t the places we were going, but rather the way we were getting there – on two wheels, through the mountains. ‘Make the journey your destination’, I said to Jess when we were in Than Uyen, before wondering if it was the cheesiest thing I’ve ever said (for the record, I’m fairly sure I said cheesier things when  I was 18 to my first girlfriend. She’s probably still got the cards to prove it).

The ride was at times utterly spectacular, threading its way around, up and down winding mountain roads, through minority villages where the girls never cut their hair and where the women all wear matching neon fluorescent clothes, and between rice terraces stretching out and up for miles into the distance, villagers sporting conical hats driving water buffalo hauling ploughs. The places we reached every evening became mere punctuation marks, insignificant commas dividing up some of the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen. Son La and Than Uyen were simply convenient places to stop for the night, before carrying on the morning after into yet more bewildering scenery.

On my Grand Tour (trademark), since leaving Liverpool, I’ve often felt so frustrated being a tourist. You always get the sense that the things you’re seeing and doing are somehow sanitized. You sit down on a tour bus to be taken to perfunctory museums, led around by a disinterested guide reading from a script, and you exit through the gift shop. It leads to a sense that, to the locals, you’re little more than a white walking wallet.

Indeed, when we arrived in our final destination on this trip – the popular town of Sapa which sadly feels more like a tourist resort than an authentic Vietnamese hill station – we were constantly touted at by villagers imploring us to buy their handmade bags or purses or scarves. I guess it comes with the territory, but that feeling that many things aren’t really authentic anymore has rankled. China was particularly bad for it, I remember thinking.

But my point is – being out on the motorbike finally got me away from all that. Some of the scenery on the roads through the mountains and plains is breathtaking, like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Even better, it felt undiscovered! This wasn’t Ha Long Bay, spectacular, but sadly spoiled by tourism; this wasn’t Huangshan, beautiful and beguiling, but bemusingly busy; this wasn’t the Great Wall, rebuilt and ultimately phoney.

Instead, the things we saw actually felt authentic, even the less attractive towns that broke up the stunning day time rides. This was real Vietnam, real south east Asia, and the fact that we’d come and found it on our own only added value.

I can’t add much about Sapa to this post, I’m afraid, because we didn’t stay very long at all. As we climbed the final ascent towards the town the road became enveloped with a thick persistent mist, and a gently but icy rain began to fall. They remained in Sapa throughout our short stay there, veiling what are supposedly some spectacular views. We weren’t much in the mood for going trekking in such miserable conditions. Instead we decided to head back to Hanoi a day early, loading our bikes onto a sleeper train at Lao Cai. Just a note to anyone doing this in the future – they take all the fuel out of your bike at the train station, and you won’t get it back. But ask around right outside the station in Hanoi, you’ll find someone with a few lemonade bottles of petrol to sell you. Well, petrol cut with water, one suspects…

I guess before hiring a motorbike and embarking on a seven day, 450km journey through the mountains I wasn’t fussed either way on exploring a country on two wheels. Maybe I’d bought the scare stories about Brits abroad. But, what can I say – hiring a motorbike, and biking around north Vietnam, is now very safely up there with the best things I’ve ever done. It is safe, as long as you’re not a dickhead. Don’t get pissed up and go zooming off into the night, because that’s when accidents happen. When the roads get wet and the corners tight or the tarmac potholed, slow down. Wear a helmet. Follow these simple bits of advice, and motorbiking in Vietnam is one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.

Charley and Ewan would be proud of me, I’m sure…