Monday, May 14, 2007

Day 37-42: On the roof of Vietnam

Saying goodbye to Daniel in Hanoi was quick, nevertheless somewhat sad. The last few weeks on the road had been great fun and we had shared many laughs and extraordinary moments along the way that will never be forgotten. Now I was alone. There was just me and my bicycle. Being on my own gave me plenty of time to contemplate my next move now that I was not going to get a Chinese visa within another week. After just a few minutes the perfect solution appeared to me. Since I would like to continue with my original route when possible, I would simply reverse the route I had planned in north-west Vietnam, starting in Sapa and working my way back to Hanoi instead. Cycling the entire distance from Sapa to Dien Bien Phu to Hanoi would take me approximately twelve days, skipping the bus ride I had originally planned leaving Hanoi. Once I will reach Hanoi, I will apply for an express visa and head back to Sapa the same day with the overnight train. The following day I plan to take an overnight bus to Kunming, China, to arrive according to the initial plan. I regret planning a few occasional bus rides on my journey, thus I will not take another bus or train before ending my trip in Beijing. I still believe I can complete my adventure in 100 days.

As a result, I quickly booked an overnight train to Sapa, leaving the same evening as Daniel on March 8th. Overnight travel is very convenient and the next morning I was in Sapa. Close to the Chinese border, Sapa is set in the a beautiful mountainous, misty landscape with many surrounding hill-tribes. It is the most popular destination of north Vietnam. Actually, I ran into a few tourists who had travel to Vietnam only to visit Sapa and other towns in the area, not traveling along the coast at all. The main reason you stop in Sapa is trekking, thus on my second and last day in town I had booked a full day trekking tour through the mountains and various hill-tribes. The scenery was breathtaking and our humorous guide, a Vietnamese stand-up comedian, made the tour worthwhile. However, when I felt I was in the middle of nowhere, another group of six tourists came up the same path, and then another a few minutes later. Furthermore, for the full six hours we walked up and down the mountains there was a constant melody of "buy for me" as hill-tribe women and children tried to sell us various self-made items. Conclusevily, the experience did not feel completely authentic. At the time I did not know that I was about to travel through many villages and hill-tribes in the mountatins by bicycle, seeing far more genuine places on my own.

I was extremely excited to get back in the saddle after more than a week, heading for my next destination, Tam Duong. My first obstacle to counqer was the famous 1900 meter Tram Ton Pass, the highest mountain pass in Vietnam. Sapa is located at about 1600 meters meaning I had a relatively easy challange in front of me, a 300 meter climb. However, the road turned out to be anything but gravel, sand, rocks or at best cracked tarmac with enough potholes to send you flying across the road, partly due to road construction. It took me a good two and half hour to reach the top all while stopping to adjust my gears that had worked beautifully all the way up until now when I was crossing the greatest pass of Vietnam. 16 kilometers later all that was quickly forgotten when the road turned downhill. From here the roadwork was completed and all of a sudden I was flying down the mountain at speeds exceeding 50 km/h. The experience took me back to the central highlands and Dalat when Daniel and I left for the coast, freewheeling about twenty kilometers down the mountain. Now I was doing it again, but here the mountains are bigger, taller and stretches way beyond the horizon. More significantly, there is no traffic. The road was mine. I could hint soft layers of clouds below me, reminding me of the high altitude. Above the sun had risen over the mountains and was warming my skin in the cold but pleasant wind. Again a great feeling of happiness came over me, same as it had in Dalat, if not more prominent. Sadly, the happiness was short lived. After 20 kilometers the road turned evil as it started to climb again, and the cool wind had disappeared. This is when I fully realized what it is like pedaling in north-west Vietnam. There are no flat roads. You either fly down a mountain, or you are struggling to climb it. I also realized that it is as hot here as in south Vietnam. Furthermore, I learned that there are no rest stops along the way. Highway 1 had spoiled both me and Daniel with freuqent cafees or restaurants along the road. It was easy to stop at anytime to rehydrate or buy snacks. Here I was stuck up in a mountain with nothing but my water bottles to rely on. However, cycling up the mountain at a ten degree angle in mid-day heat (35 degree Celcius), I quickly ran out of water. Finally I approched a village with a few wooden houses. I desperately peaked in to see nothing but children looking strangely in my direction. Here was no water to be found. When I saw a woman rinsing vegetables in the creek running along the road I knew what I had to do. My water filter came to my rescue. Rehydrated I arrived in Tam Doung already after 40 kilometers, but accroding to my map it should have been at least 70. More confusingly, I saw a road sign for Lai Chau reading 30 kilometers. Lai Chau, according to my map, was more than 120 kilometers a way. What was going on? Excited to reach Lai Chau one day earlier than planned I pushed on the last 30 kilometers. I spent the evening that night repairing my gears, optimizing them for the hills. A young, ambitious man helped me making the final adjustments. He was so excited to be part of the operation that he took our picture, went to the photostore and had two copies made, one for him and one for his sister. Later I recieved a detailed drawing of a rose from him. Not sure what that meant, but he sure helped me get my bicycle ready for the next day.

When I left Lai Chau I realized something was very wrong with the map. I was not in Lai Chau, or was I? Where was I? Extremely confused I stopped a moped coming up the mountain in my direction. In both Vietnamese and little English he explained to me that Lai Chau had switched names with Moung Lay. Appearently, many towns and cities of north-west Vietnam have switched names recently, and few changed names in the last year. My 2005 map was simply outdated. To my relief I knew where I was, but to my disappointment I had not saved a day. It would still take me three days to reach Dien Bien Phu from Sapa. The road was hilly but I had to come to except the fact that I was either traveling at speed around 50 km/h, or 5 km/h. On my way down a mountain pass I stopped by a helpless motorbiker on the side of the road. One of his tires had run out of air. With next to no traffic and very little passing vehicles in the mountains, I was his only hope. He borrowed my bicycle pump and quickly he was on his way. I felt proud of my achievement and hoped that if I would end up in a helpless situation, someone would assist me similarly. On the same downhill I ran into a brave dutch cyclist coming up the mountain. We had met in Hanoi in a bar and he mentioned that he thought about cycling north-west Vietnam, same route I had initially planned. Now we met in the middle of nowhere, going the opposite directions. I explained that I had to change plans due to the Chinese visa, reversing the route, and he presented his situation. It was great to see another person crazy enough to tackle these mountains. He made me feel sane. The 106 kilometers to Moung Lay (previous Lai Chau) was stunningly beautiful and all the cycling up and down the mountain felt easier by the hill. In the early afternoon I arrived in Moung Lay and had an early dinner which never have tasted better.

The final and third day before reaching Dien Bien Phu was going to be the most physically challenging day of my life. The last two days I had cycled 176 kilometers in extremely hilly terrain and spent almost twelwe hours in the saddle. My butt was sour, legs stiff and my body needed rest. I was not yet completely fit to handle three consecutive days in the mountains. However, I needed to reach Dien Bien Phu, 100 kilometers to the south, in order to make it to Hanoi in time. The distance was not the problem, the two mountain passes I had to climb were. I rolled out before breakfast at 5:30, a half an hour earlier than usual, wanting to cover more distance in the morning when it is cooler. The first and greatest pass came soon after I left Moung Lay, and would last much longer than I anticipated. After seven kilometers I started to feel weak (the last moutnain pass to Dalat was seven kilometers). My legs could not handle the weight of my bicycle at a ten degree slope, and were starting to give in. I pushed and pushed but every push only moved me a meter up the mountain. Finally I gave up and stepped off the bicycle. My legs felt like two single bricks attached to my hips, hurting enourmously. That was when I heard a very familiar sound; a slow moving truck traveling up the steep road. Soon I was hanging on to the truck, blessing God for his gift. After an additional seven kilometers I still had a tight grip on the truck but my arm had fallen asleep two kilometers ago. I decided to let go, waved the truck driver goodbye, and thought that this dreadful pass must be over within the next few hundred meters. To my disapointment it would continue for another five kilometers, almost ending my life. I knew I had reached the top when the truck driver awaited me by the roadside with a big, welcoming smile. We sat down on the side of the road, looking out over the mountain peaks. The wind was cool against my sweaty body and I truly felt alive. I looked over to the truck driver and with a big smile, revealing his missing teeth, he reached out a large plastic bottle with a brown, muddy liquid. Stuffed in the bottle were lots of various roots. Without a doubt I accepted his offer and took a zip. It was home-brewed sweet Vietnamese rom. He kept offering me the bottle over and over, flexing his muscles, illustrating strength, and I kept accepting his generous offers. Slightly intoxicated I rolled down on the other side of the mountain feeling like the king of the world. The rom proved to work as I pedaled effortlessly over rolling hills until I reached the second pass of the day. The story repeated itself but this time there was no truck to save me. Completely exhausted, barely alive, I reached Dien Bien Phu in the afternoon. During the entire 96 kilometers there had been only one place to stop for food, thus I had not had any lunch this day. Still I was not hungry and settle with some mangos before falling asleep at eight o'clock.


Please note that there are links to all slideshows on the left hand side. On the left there is also a link to a full Route Report.


  1. Andreas LMay 15, 2007

    hey! it sounds like you are 100% alive. I would really like to be there right now, i guess its now the adventure starts...ride safe!

  2. AnonymousMay 16, 2007

    Haha, och du var på mig för att tog ett par öl på kvällarna. Jag drack aldrig när vi cyklade!
    Låter som du har haft en tuff tur men de e dom som känns bra efteråt. Det blir verkligen minnen för livet. Känns ganska overkligt att vara tillbaka i Malmö för att stanna men det går väl över med tiden. Ska bli kul att följa dig resten av biten.
    Lycka till och håll i passet.
    //Dan the support car

  3. Efter 80 km hann du inte ens satta cykeln forran du hade en cigg i kaften och en ol i handen :-) Jag umgas bara med den lokala befolkning.

    Just det, passet...

  4. Tjena Daniel!

    Verkligen kul att läsa om ditt äventyr och kolla på alla fantastiska bilder!

    Själv har jag varit dålig på att cykla senaste tiden, springer istället, ska springa Münster maraton den 9:e sept. Vill du hänga på? Du har ju jobbat bort din tyska ölmage sen länge så du borde ju inte ha några problem skifta hojen mot ett par joggingskor!

    Annars har det varit tyst om dig länge nu, kan tänka mig att möjligheterna till internetställen i Kina är helt andra jämfört med Vietnam.

    Nu ska jag återgå till och rensa fläder blommor, håller på att göra fläder snaps. :)

    ha de gött