A Tale Of Two Roads

In this final post covering our trip in north Vietnam I want to tell you about two roads. This pair of roads neatly bookend our journey from Dong Van all the way to Cao Bang and the Ban Gioc Waterfall. They also happen to be my favourite in Vietnam.

We left Dong Van at noon on Saturday having spent the morning photographing tribeswomen at the market (you can read all about that here). Our next destination was the Meo Vac market in search of the elusive Flower LoLo. We took the moto up to the crest of the hill above the town flanked by all kinds of pedestrian traffic; women carrying sacks of rice, children accompanying cattle and wizened old men with scant but a beard in tow. The market was a big day out for everyone up in Ha Giang province.

As we rounded the final corner out of town the road stretched out ahead of us; long, winding, narrow; a treacherous strip of Tarmac with little margin for error. The view though was simply breathtaking. We stood aside the remaining cap of mountain on this thin ribbon of path and the vastness of this region became startling. In the distance peak upon peak, valley after valley, cloud beyond cloud stretched out as far as the eye could see; details became fuzzy at this range; binoculars might have rendered more fully the image of exact locations of these far away places. Immediately to our left was the sheer drop of the cliff edge, not some small distance was this, cavernous space loomed below us with mere crops of corn to break any fall, which would end in certain death in the tiny river a thousand feet below.

This is the Ma Pi Leng pass, a 40km mountain track, connecting Dong Van with Meo Vac plus numerous smaller settlements dotted at intervals along the way. Though not for the faint of heart this is truly a road to be ridden. Sticking like glue to the upper elevation of the mountainside this short journey will make you inhale deeply and barely believe your eyes.

Sadly at market that day there were no Lo Lo, we took a brief lunch and photographed some of the incidental comings and goings of market day in Meo Vac before we headed back along the glorious Ma Pi Leng pass to Dong Van. The no show of Lo Lo meant that we would return to Meo Vac for a few days to seek out this elusive tribe. Happily it also meant that I would get to cycle the road too. This short spin in the mountains is really a perfect snapshot of cycling across north Vietnam; beautifully scenic, wonderfully natural and occasionally extremely tough going. I would urge any cyclist with a penchant for high altitude, long distance, adrenaline filled journeys to pay Ha Giang a visit, here you’ll find rides that tick all the boxes.

Throughout our ride across north Vietnam preparations were being made for the impending Independence Day, a national holiday, that this year would mark 70 years of independence. Bunting was a mainstay in all towns we passed through, so too was a Vietnamese flag adorning every home, many larger towns also had plans to celebrate with a carnival at the main square featuring traditional songs, dance and huge portraits of the beloved national hero and icon Ho Chi Minh. One such town was Cao Bang, an important industrial city close to the Chinese border with a bevy of rivers and highways. After weeks of frugal living in the sparse north a few days here in a comparatively developed city would help to restore energy levels and restock empty panniers. Never have I enjoyed a pizza so much as the night we arrived in Cao Bang.

The day after our arrival was Independence Day; we decided to do something different and make a day trip to Ban Gioc Waterfall. Sharing the border with China the waterfall is a famous landmark and popular destination for locals, this 169km round trip would be a memorable day out. At first light we took our pack up lunch of pizza and buffalo jerky down to the moto and set off on the 84km ride up to the waterfall.

We would not be the only intrepid adventurers on this trip. A vast convoy of motos carrying two’s, three’s and occasionally single riders accompanied us through rain and shine to Ban Gioc. Limestone karst peaks lined the road on both sides creating a magical scene, as if a gaggle of witches and wizards had set down their hats to shape the weave of the road between them, like a supernatural game of snakes and ladders. Deep green vegetation set upon the peaks contrasting sharply with the fluorescent lime green of the abundant rice paddy, occasional trees clambered for space in the densely packed fields, striking out singularly for a glimpse of sunlight in this shady place.

The waterfall was a triumph. A huge rollicking beast of spray and power; a flexing of natures most violent muscle; water plunging hundreds of feet with such direct force that is best avoided by land living creatures. This awesome might could easily crush a human soul, battering any and all that breach the levy. Drowning would be a lucky escape here. The five main plunge pools juxtaposed in such a way as to show the full beauty to Vietnam and only a glimpse to the green envy of the Chinese. Fragile boats take a precarious paddle towards the fierce flow to try to make up for the unkindness of the natural boundary. Young viets bask lazily next the monstrous noise sipping cans of Saigon beer, unmoved by the plight of the daring Chinese 50ft below.

Alas our day is nearly done and we must return to Cao Bang and onwards to the next phase in our respective journeys; Donna will go on to Hanoi to tie up loose ends; I will head slowly south. Our final farewell to the north and this incredible region is a joyous moment, a slow sunny salute along this magnificent road and back to civilisation.