Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.Henry David Thoreau
Mar 8-13 2017
You would think that after traveling 1,600+ miles over a month from Ho Chi Minh City to Saigon, we would be tired of motorbiking, but that would be wrong. We still wanted more. So after staying in Hanoi for a few days we would start our next journey into northwest Vietnam. The first task was getting our train tickets and making sure the bikes would be on-board with us. We headed to the train station and used hand signals, a calendar, and some scripted phrases to acquire our round-trip tickets for the dates and seats we wanted. No English was spoken, so you basically just have to hope for the best. With our tickets in hand we were ready to board the next day.
Arriving at the station plenty early, we would first have any remaining fuel pumped from our bikes before they were loaded on-board. We would be taking a night train to Lao Cai, a city on the Chinese border. We would be sharing a 4 person sleeper room on one of the national run train cars (there were also the option of privately run train cars attached to the same train). We ended up sharing the car with a French group and there tour car. A lot of wine was drank to help get us tired and ready for bed. The entire journey would take just over 7 hours, arriving in our destination, Lao Cai, at 6AM.
From Lao Cai we would have to bike for another hour to reach the town of Sapa. This would end up being just our second day of the whole trip where we had to ride in the rain. Except this time it was a bit more of a downpour, plus, climbing up a mountain it was much colder, and by the time we reached Sapa we were soaked. Luckily the rain would stop and the temperatures would get warmer for the next several days of the trip.
We spent one night in Sapa, which is a popular resort town, historically founded by the French as an escape from the heat of Hanoi. The town is often covered in mist and clouds, as it was when we arrived. The following morning we would start our 3 day trip that consisted of a loop through northwest Vietnam including Sin Ho and many small minority villages. The total length was only around 200 miles, but we would be on winding roads the entire time, climbing up mountains and descending into valleys, including twice crossing the highest mountain pass in Vietnam. Thankful for the good weather, which can be hit or miss anytime of the year in the area, we headed out from Sapa.
Quickly we began seeing some amazing views, passing rice paddies, numerous roadside waterfalls, and climbing up towards and eventually through the clouds. Before we knew it, we were riding along the highest mountain road in the country, Tram Ton pass, while looking down upon the road we would be soon be traveling. The pass was also the divide between climate zones, and even though we were at a high altitude (about 6,500+ ft), the temperature steadily rose as we crossed to the other side.
As we began descending Mt. Fansipan and it’s jagged ridge tops came into view. Mt. Fansipan is the highest mountain in Indochina, and at 10,000+ feet it would dominate the landscape for the next couple of hours of the days ride. We passed through beautiful and pristine alpine scenery, along with many valleys filled with terraced rice paddies along the way. We soon arrived in Lai Chau, a brand new concrete creation in a remote valley surrounded by pyramidal peaks. It consists mostly of grandiose government buildings and wide empty boulevards. It was going to be our first stop, but feeling good, we decided to continue another 20 miles to the small and more picturesque village of Phong Tho.
The next morning we awakened, excited to continue the journey and see what landscapes were awaiting us next. We began heading south through the Da River valley. The road was in good condition, and was a quiet, easy stretch through a majestic river valley. The river was wide with several hydroelectric plants along it’s course, as well as being dotted by several small villages between rural landscapes.
As the road turned back east we soon reached a junction and decided to take a small detour further south. Arriving in the small outpost of Chan Nua, perched beside the river where it widened to form a lake, we stopped to have some coffee, rest a bit, and top off our gas tanks before continuing onward.
We soon began the impossibly scenic and steep ride to Sin Ho. Cutting a path in the mountainside, the single lane road zig-zagged up for 25 miles to the isolated mountaintop town of Sin Ho. The views over ridges, farmland, ethnic minority villages and clear rivers were superb. We both had a grin on our faces the entire way, constantly stopping and gazing in disbelief at the landscape.
When we arrived in Sin Ho we headed for the main square, which also happened to be a football (soccer) field, with a game going on- and they would actually continue all weekend with quite a crowd. Otherwise the town felt very remote. Built on a small plateau and ringed by limestone pinnacles, surrounded by minority villages scattered over the mountainside, it seemed to have huge tourist potential, but as yet hardly any travelers make the trip.
After a good nights rest we got up and headed to the Sunday market. Sin Ho market receives hundreds of minority women dressed in their various colorful clothing. They make the journey by foot (sometimes starting before dawn) to the market in order to buy (not sell) supplies for the week ahead. Unlike a lot of markets we’ve seen in the more touristy towns, this one was the real deal. What was for sale was mostly fresh meat, vegetables, fruit, and practical equipment for use in the villages.
After the market we hopped back on our bikes and began the 40 mile descent back down to Lai Chau. The ride was just as beautiful as the ride up. A vast landscape of endless mountains stretches into the distance, dotted with stilt-home villages clustered around clear streams. The road was a little rough at first, and every now and then we came across some bad patches, likely due to landslides, but overall it was smooth tarmac for the majority of the route.
Once we arrived in Lao Chau we began retracing our route back to Sapa and then continuing all the way to Lao Cai to catch the train. Even though we had already ridden this part of the route, riding in the reverse direction offered new views and perspectives to enjoy. When we reached Sapa, covered in a mist as it usually is, we stopped for lunch and a bit of a break.
For the last bit of the journey between Sapa and Lao Cai we were awarded with more beautiful views, scenes we had missed when we first came up since the weather was rainy and the road covered in fog. Now with clear skies and the sun shining we took our time, taking in the landscape. In Lao Cai we had a few hours before our train left, so we went and hung out at a coffee shop for awhile. I decided to drive down the road a bit and check out the river crossing between Vietnam and China.
It was then time to board the train once again and head overnight back to Hanoi. Our motorbike trip had come to an end and after a couple more days having the bikes in Hanoi, it was time for us to sell them back. Maggie had become quite attached to her’s, and who could blame her. With our journey between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, plus our time spent riding in the northwest around Sapa and Sin Ho, we had the bikes for 35 days, riding for nearly 1,900 miles (the distance from California to the Mississippi). It truly was an experience and something that we will never forget. If you ever have the chance, and the time and energy, I couldn’t recommend it enough. Through some careful planning and smart and alert driving, you can have a safe and wonderful time. I think there will be another similar type of trip in our future. You can read how we started our trip and our journey between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi in the posts Motorbiking Vietnam Part 1 and Motorbiking Vietnam Part II.