Monday, January 6, 2014

A long, cold schlog to Sapa...

Day 10 - Thursday, November 14
Distance - 247 kms = total for day ~ 8.5 hrs
Trip Odometer =  888 kms
Route - Ha Giang - Sapa.  South on Hwy #2 from HaGiang, then West on #279 to Pho Rang.  West on #70 to Lao Cai and #4D up, up, and up to Sapa
Hotel - Sapa Paradise View Hotel  ($55US x2 nights)
Weather - Misty wet and soggy wet including wet-wet with brief moments of higher cloud and less wet for only a few moments of the day.

It is difficult to get motivated and excited about riding a motorbike through a foreign country when you know you are going to get wet and probably cold.  I'm sure with this look on my riding partner's face (see above) that she should would have preferred transport by any other means than by motorbike on this particular day.  It was a day after her first crash on wet roads and the roads were wet again.  She was a trooper, I'll give her that, she deserves all the credit in the world for keeping her chin up each and every day and in particular, on the rainy, wet days that neither of us looked forward to.

A holiday is sitting on a beach and relaxing.  Travelling by motorbike isn't a holiday, it is an adventure and sometimes a very challenging one at that.  At this point, we were both wishing for a holiday, maybe on a beach, with warmer temps and clear azure water.  Our reality was a long way from that beach, the beach we would eventually encounter, but on this particularly wet day in Vietnam, it was a long way off.

Hand-made plywood drying (or getting wetter) on the roadside

'These little piggys go to market'...

As we were a day or so behind our original planned route and because the weather forecast didn't look too great, we decided to cut-out a portion of our original itinerary I had planned from Canada.  The section that would have brought us West from Ha Giang up in the mountains to Xin Man and then down into Bac Ha was a section that we'll have to put on the back burner for next time.

Instead, we opted for the most direct and quickest route from Ha Giang into the tourist mountain town of Sapa.  Right out of the gates and once fueling up in Ha Giang, we encountered long, dry, straight roads where we were cruising at speeds of 50-60kph consistently for about an hour.  We covered just over 30kms in roughly an hour, a grand record in all our days of riding.

The weather slowly got worse as we gained in elevation over our first pass of the day.  All seemed to be going well weather-wise out of Ha Giang as we were keeping elevation following a river valley, but the minute we started heading up into the mountains, things changed which wasn't a surprise.

We stopped for lunch in Yen Binh for a very welcomed steaming hot bowl of 'pho-ga'.

Lunch stop in Yen Binh.

Wet, cold, prune-hands - so nice to wrap them around a hot steamy bowl of pho...

South of Yen Binh, we came to the town of Pho Rang.  From here, we travelled northwest along Hwy 70 towards China.  The #70 was a very busy road, the type that we hadn't encountered since the beginning of our trip.  There was loads of heavy truck traffic as this was a main transport route north linking Vietnam with China.

I could see on my GPS and maps that there was a secondary road 4E to Lao Cai which too linked with Sapa, our destination for the day.  I figured we could avoid the heavy traffic of the 70 and get onto a smaller road with less congestion.  About 2kms into 4E, we both realized that we were indeed on a much smaller road with less traffic but with the state it was in, we probably wouldn't be arriving to Sapa before nightfall at that speed.  The road was much smaller, but was a mix of choppy pavement, potholes and dirt sections that hadn't been maintained. We were barely able to ride 10kph, so we turned our bikes around and headed straight back to the #70 and B-lined it with the busyness for Lao Cai.

Lao Cai is essentially right, smack-on, the Vietnam-China border.  I'll now let the Lonely Planet do the honours:  'The town was razed in the Chinese invasion of 1979, so most of the buildings are new.  The border crossing here slammed shut during the 1979 war and only reopened in 1993.  Now, it's a bustling spot fuelled by growing cross-border trade.  Today, Lao Cai is also a destination for travellers journeying between Hanoi and Sapa, or further north to Kumming in China.  With Sapa just an hour or so away, Lao Cai is no place to linger, but it offers everything China-bound travellers will need for an overnight stay.'

We had read that Sapa was one of Vietnams's highlights and that it wasn't to be missed.  With that, we knew that it too would be filled with tourists.  Being the savvy tourists that we are ('toot-toot' >> tooting my own horn here), we also know that touristy areas and tourist centres are normally there for a reason, they tend to be beautiful, there are normally things to see and do, and there tends to be a plethora of services including good restaurants and accommodations.  We were both looking forward to all of this.  We were tourists after all and we were craving the simple luxury of pizza and beer, well, maybe I was.    
The road from Lao Cai to Sapa was incredible.  Another stretch that I would love to ride with dry roads and nice conditions.  At times, I still opted to open my bike up as much as possible weaving in and out of the twisty corners while gaining in elevation.  Eventually, I had to slow right down due to the heavy mist and fog we encountered as we gained higher and higher in elevation.  The last 10km into Sapa was the thickest mist and fog yet.  We had to almost ride in 1st and 2nd gear only, just crawling along, and it felt like ages to cover that final 10km.

When we pulled into Sapa, we literally couldn't see a thing.  It was starting to get dark and it was wet, misty, foggy and cold.  We weaved along the narrow, steep streets looking for our hotel (that I had booked online due to a fellow moto traveller tip and the Trip Advisor recommendation )

We were ecstatic to check into the Sapa Paradise View Hotel.  We had planned to spend x2 nights in Sapa so we figured we could stay in a nicer place with all the amenities and really live large.  It was wonderful.

The minute we pulled up to the Sapa Paradise View hotel, we were treated like respected royalty.  The managers and staff were so friendly and helpful, it was just what the 'doctor ordered' for both of us, their service was exemplary.  We were given passionfruit juice welcome drinks, cakes, and a bottle of Dalat wine to enjoy, and we chose a more expensive upper floor room with valley views - all for $55/night, expensive for Vietnam but just fine with us.

Pizza, beer and a beautiful riding partner to share it with - perfect!

A couple of cocktails after dinner, tucked in a travellers bar complete with fire place to take off the chill.

We had planned to stay in Sapa for x2 nights to take it all in.  We wanted to take care of laundry, see what cheap North Face knock-offs we could find, drink good coffee, peruse the markets, eat good food, and chill, rest and relax.

Sapa was a perfect stop over for all of this.

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