Next day the road took us up to Quan Ba. We ate a late lunch and found out from the locals more of the road ahead. From the map it looked like a very steep twisting route. Our thoughts were confirmed and we were advised to stay the night. The journey on a moto would take six hours. We checked in to the most luxurious suite so far. A twin double with a huge window, balcony and a cracking view across the valley. It was a treat to be off the bike so early so I took a shower and set out to explore the town on foot.
We woke early, keen to get underway on what would surely be a long, hard day. The first stretch of road to Yen Minh took us by surprise. The wiggly line on the map that looked like a monstrous climb turned out to be quite the opposite – a twisting, turning, hairpin descent into the valley floor. This was a welcome start to the day. The landscape here was simply stunning. As the road crept down the mountainside into the valley, limestone karst rose up on all sides. Covered with dense green vegetation the whole mass seemed to breath heavily. Occasional shocks of white revealed the mountains true colour in the bright morning sun. It was a glorious way to start this epic day.
We exited the valley with a hefty 53km to reach Yen Minh, our first stop en route to the market town of Dong Van, our ultimate destination. With such a massive day ahead featuring numerous climbs and a total distance of 121km I agreed to take a tow from Donna. Though fraught with danger on these perilous high altitude roads it was the only way we could make it to the top in tandem.
The towing process involves linking the bikes with a length of cable, so for better or worse, we were in it together. There was also limited scope for camping in the mountainous north, every scrap of land is farmed, even the impossibly precipitous mountainside, so to reach Dong Van in one day was our goal.
We arrived at the summit of the first climb and the little moto really wasn’t happy. The extra load had reduced the poor thing to just first and second gear with liberal use of the clutch to get round the tightest of the steep corners. Oil started to leak from the engine. It was a worrying development since neither of us are mechanics. So far from relative civilization this could scupper the whole trip. Fortunately, there was a moto repair man in the next row of houses. He quickly identified the problem, fixed the clutch spring and topped up the oil level. A dollar well spent.
The view from the top was quite something. A vast network of karst peaks unfold before us. A river cut through the centre like a snake slithering out to sea. The cliff edge we stood on dropped away many hundreds of feet to rocky outcrops below. We took a brief snap and stepped back. The next 20km was hideously fast. The road swooped down in long straights banking sharply into 180 degree turns. This was one of the rare occasions where the bicycle outran the moto.
Pedal powered dominance was short lived. The next two climbs would be long, hard and slow. Having nearly blown the engine of the moto and frazzled the nerves of its rider, towing was abandoned. This left me with a very big rest of day. Halfway up the second ascent I met a German and American traveling by moto. We stopped to chat and admire the view. They too were destined for Dong Van. They planned to visit an old palace along the way. Donna rounded the corner, returning from the recce of the road ahead, exasperated that I had stopped to make casual chit chat with so far still to go. It was a cracking view.
The third and final climb of the day was brutal; steep and unforgiving. We knew that day light was fading, we had to move more quickly. In an effort to lighten my load we put some of my camping gear on the back of the already overloaded moto. It was a well needed boost to morale and I cycled on with renewed vigour. Why had we not done this sooner?
As we scrambled up this final stretch of road the German and American passed us by having visited the great palace, they gave us a thumbs up and rode on. Scores of mini buses roared by. We were close, this would be the final push. By now my legs were ready to give up, trembling through the prolonged effort of this insane day. I persevered over the final undulations at the top of the peak and rounded the final bends in the haze of dusk to reveal the town. Nothing is quite so satisfying as reaching the summit of mountain through sheer effort and force of will. I was relieved to have made it. It felt like a huge achievement.
Finally we rolled down a shallow hill into Dong Van and in the time it took to check in to a budget hotel it was pitch dark. The light this high up was absolute; the sun disappeared behind a peak giving way to immediate and complete darkness. After the longest day yet, 10 hours and 23 minutes, we’d made it to our destination. Tomorrow we would go to market.