Cycling to Sa Pa

I set forth from Ha Noi with more than a little trepidation. Admittedly, the experience of the last 4,554km cycling from London to Istanbul would serve me well in the next stage of my journey, however the idea of entering a wholly new terrain, culture and continent weighed heavy on my mind.

Once again I had planned little, even for this expedition into the unknown, trusting my instinct and two weeks orientation in Ha Noi as enough to guide me through this uncharted territory. My concerns were mainly to do with climate; I was about to attempt cycling through the peak of rainy season in the north of Vietnam, a particularly mountainous region (the eastern extremity of the Himalayan chain), prone to landslides and floods during heavy rain and where humidity often reaches 100% making it feel ten degrees hotter than the seasonal average of 30.


It was for this very fact that on my first day out of Ha Noi that I found myself perched behind this make shift shade, on the cusp of the Ba Vi National Park. I had cycled all morning and felt that a sit down and a nice cup of tea would serve me well. Sadly, there was no tea to be found behind this particular cardboard curtain, only stale cream buns and hard boiled eggs. I spent the next three hours hiding from the sun, sipping a bottle of water, eating a dry cake and smiling at locals. The heat was immense even hidden in this shady place. At four o’clock I felt a move must be made, so I pushed the bike carefully across the dirt road and down on to the ferry boat to cross the Song Da river.


As the vehicles onboard the boat scrambled to make a speedy get away up the hill to the main road I slowly rolled off the metal ramp on to dry land. I heard a slight pinging sound as the bike left boat for road but thought little of it since the noise is usual where a crossing such as this is made. Next day I was faced with a worrying reality; I’d snapped a spoke on the rear wheel and had not the tools to make the repair. This concerned me for two reasons; One, the bike was clearly overloaded to have snapped a spoke simply leaving the boat on the previous day. Two, the roads were becoming increasingly rough and likely to exacerbate any weakness of a wheel or anything else on the bike not at full strength.
A long 104km, untold pot holes, rocks, bumps, lumps and a full 36 hours after the spoke snapped I nervously creaked and squeaked my way in to the town of Yen Bai. The mechanical well being of the bike was not the only priority – I’d also spent my last $10 on a hotel room and an egg sandwich – I needed an ATM pretty sharpish if I was going to avert disaster. I was also becoming desperately dehydrated from the mornings ride along uninhabited dirt roads.

Happily, cash, tools and water were at hand in this the largest of towns so far encountered in the two days since leaving Ha Noi. Using a length of old chain in place of a chain whip and my cassette removing tool, Hung and I were able to replace the offending spoke. I was relieved to say the least. With a fistful of Dong and a newly true rear wheel I crossed the Song Hong river by road bridge and found a very tasty bowl of Phô Bo. A meal to remember.


Along the way there were many groups of people working at the side of the road drying out small, very thin rectangles of wood. I was fascinated by this activity and stopped to take a photo; my attempt to ask why they were doing this failed to be understood, however, my guess is that the finished pieces are packaged together in bundles and sold for use ín the manufacture of plywood.


I stopped for breakfast at this little place in the town of Tân Ninh, 193km out of Hà Nội and 133km from Sa Pa. This stop is significant because it was the first time I was offered rice wine with breakfast. It was 6.34am. A sure sign that I was entering the mountains. I gratefully accepted the thimble sized shot and knocked it back. By 7am between the three of us at the table we’d finished the bottle (about half a litre). Buoyed by my mild inebriation and belly full of noodles I felt ready to tackle anything.


Until I reached this road. I was pointed in the direction across the railway line, only to find that the road had suffered at the hands of a huge landslide and was barely passable. I clambered over the boulders and carved a muddy track up a steep hill for five kilometres before I decided that there must be an easier way. I scrambled back the way I’d come and took off in the other direction (left of the shot above).


Having abandoned the mudslide and boulder ridden road for a more direct route I was now sandwiched between the railway to my right and the river to my immediate left, further to my left is the brand spanking new Noi Bai – Lao Cai Expressway, which I was expressly forbidden from riding on a bicycle. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t dream of a motorway as an acceptable option for any cycling, let alone a full touring rig. However, the ‘road’ you see above is the alternative. It’s craggy, rocky and strewn with deep tracks from months of use by motos in the rain. To say this is a tricky with the bike weighing 52kg would be an understatement. I’m also now acutely aware of how easy it would be to snap another spoke and that is something best avoided this far from a main road. I push on, literally in places, hoping that this track becomes a more familiar paved surface in the very near future.


Thirty kilometers later and the road is still somewhat rugged, but the worst appears to be over. I stop to appreciate a very glamorous old lady walk her buffalo. I’m now approaching the final 100km to Sa Pa and the rice wine is flowing freely at each meal. Further up the road I spot these cheeky buffalo taking a dip in the river. Its a nice idea since it was a very hot day.


I reach Lao Cai at 2pm on Saturday 15th August after a 63km morning. I stop for Pho Bo and a coconut. The next and final stop will be Sa Pa, a 35km climb up to 1,500m above sea level on a notoriously busy and narrow road. Leaving Lao Cai I call in to a small store to pick up some Thit Kho Bo (Buffalo jerky) which is my new favourite snack for on the bike, that and jelly sweets. As I roll down from the huge roundabout at the head of Ham Nghi there are road works taking place, the road to Sa Pa is being resurfaced, the strange novelty of this is that many of the worker are female. A very rare sight back home, women working hands on in construction. Marvellous.


And so it begins, just 12km into the climb and I have to pull up at the side of the road to get underneath my bike. My rear gear cable has snapped and I have to stop to replace it. A simple job but one that puts me back an hour. Job done I set off once more with much smoother gears but not enough time to reach the top in day light. The gradient though not the steepest, the signs indicate 10% all the way up the mountain (I think they only made one sign and ordered a lot of them), even when the road clearly kicks up or flattens out, the climb is long. I persevere and at one point I’m shaking from the prolonged effort. I stop for a drink and neck a litre of iced tea taking a bottle of water for the journey ahead. I’m enjoying the physicality of the challenge but I’m becoming tired after a long day in the saddle. A lorry passes close by and I snatch to grab the back for a tow, missing by a whisker.

Finally, after four hours and twenty five minutes I reach the summit. I pull up at a restaurant and eat frantically. I’m soaked with sweat, filthy dirty and incredibly tired. I make my way to a hostel I’ve been recommended by a friend. Frustratingly, it takes thirty minutes to find Mountain View since it is hidden behind a pole covered with wires and lights. As I check in, an Aussie called Lockey hands me an ice cold beer. I’d made it to Sa Pa.



Summary of the route:

I very roughly followed the River Hong from day two after the first days ride to Dong Mai (its possible to follow the so called Red River all the way from Hanoi but I wanted to see the Ba Vi National Park). A north westerly course towards Sa Pa, zigzagging across the river on the smaller roads, dirt tracks in many cases all the way up to Lao Cai. Finally the climb up to Sa Pa which is a painstaking 35km schlepp up to altitude of nearly 1,500m over a lengthy 27km of incline. I left Hanoi at 6am on the morning of Tuesday 11th August and arrived in Sa Pa on the evening of Saturday the 15th of August.  The first three days were very hot, over 30 degrees with high humidity which added 10 degrees to the ambient temperature, very hot during peak hours so I rested noon to three on these days. From Bao Ha the days were cooler with lower humidity so I rested less.

  • 369km from Hanoi to Sa Pa
  • $10 a night buys a hotel room of varying standard, they were in:
  • Dong Mai at 73 km north west of Hanoi (initially very tricky to find a bed but eventually lead to a backstreet place with no signage but comfy beds)
  • Hein Luong at 161km from Hanoi (double twin room in a modern, clean hotel set in beautiful gardens, easy to find)
  • Den Dong Cuong 219km (poor quality room but close to a temple and bit of a tourist trap)
  • Bao Ha 274km (Van Minh Hotel, best of the bunch in this busy town)
  • Sa Pa 369km (Mountain View Hostel, helpful friendly staff in bustling tourist town

This is the paper map I bought in Hanoi (in the old quarter opposite the shopping centre) for under $1. Its not bad but doesn’t show all the place names needed but combined with a daily screenshot of a Google map, works pretty well, plus everywhere has WiFi so its easy to check accurate locations etc