North of Vietnam, you shall pass

Our last article ended on a rainy day to join Ha Giang. The next day was not much different because it rained almost continuously. After the breakfast brioche and coffee, we finally put the raincoats! It’s a quiet 60 km ride before attacking the serious stuff with a beautiful climb in the rain of 1100m. We climb in swimsuit like we were at the beach :). The landscapes are splendid, one almost comes to denigrate Sa Pa. At the top, the pass is called the gate of paradise and it was opened by the French in the 19th century to create an access to the fertile valleys on the other side. The name is deserved! We go down at nightfall to the city of Quan Ba. This evening, the restaurant is no limit, we are welcomed by two adorable brothers who make us taste their Ruou (just once will not hurt).

We leave in the morning for the second leg day of the Ha Giang half loop (the name of this famous motorcycle tour increasingly popular among backpackers). Descent, then up on a pass, the road is now much quieter! At the break we are particularly tired, and the afternoon promises because we have again a collar and a rise of 1200m to get our teeth into! It will be done smoothly because we stop frequently to talk with motorcycle tourists at all belvederes. It feels like we are riding the Tour de France because we are applauded by groups, we just wish we had our names on the road and some devil disguised Belgian to run after us (or just walk). One of the switchback climbs is really spectacular. Arrived at our goal at nightfall, no luck, the guest house are either closed or too dirty … So we still do fifteen miles by night with an « overall fairly flat » profile yes yes we know! In a village we finally fall on the providential man, Hang is an English teacher in the primary school and he is an angel! He opens his room for friends and tells us that we can stay at home. He is a hard worker, and is constantly improving his beautiful terrace restaurant that welcomes many tourists during the day.The discussions will be really interesting, he loves the French and learned riding bicycle as child with a bicycle of the brand Peugeot (pronounced peuzô). His dream was to be able to buy a motorcycle, but tourism in the region has made him a « relatively » wealthy man so he is happy to tell us that he could now buy a dozen :). What we remember of people like him and Vietnamese in general, it is their sense of hospitality and sharing. We have a lot to learn from them in this sense, to trust your neighbor and open your door does not cost much, on the contrary, it is an enrichment! We will keep that in mind when we have our home.

The next day, we decided to take a small step and enjoy the morning to set foot in China, just 8km away. There is no check point, which is normal because it is a very small trail through the mountains. Nothing to report on the Chinese side, not even a patrol to shoot us, phew! In the afternoon, we go to the next town just 20km away. Dong Van is very pretty, the city is in a narrow valley and the few houses are fighting duels with the rice fields. The view from a small promontory makes it a great reading area! We booked a hostel where groups flock in the late afternoon. This evening will be memorable, a good time of fun with all the backpackers, we all wake up with an hangover on the next day. For them it’s ok but when you have to pedal it’s not the same, so it will be another micro step of 40km. We nevertheless go up to the old French fort that dominates the valley, but we will not take it again for fear of suffering another bitter defeat. For us the rice alcohol defeats are more than enough already… We go through Meo Vac, another beautiful town that offers a last pass and a great descent, that’s it, the famous loop is almost over! The landscapes of the region are really a highlight of the trip until now. Having not been able to find a good place to camp high up, we resolve to descend 800 meters to fall on a river, where we witness the brutal killing of a rabid dog. It is cruel but the inhabitants have to treat the problem as quickly as possible, we understand them well. Going up this small river on the side, we come across a bunch of very funny kids to share a well deserved swim. Camping is done in a grove of bamboos pretty tough. The fatigue is installed for several days, we hope to sleep well. Given the risk of storm announced we put the tarp as we could, unfortunately it was not enough to protect Steph who wakes up soaked at 5am.

When I wake up very late, he goes off and is waiting for me on the road. That day, we travel about 60 km to spend two nights at the hotel in Bac Lao. French people are there too and we spend a memorable barbecue together :). The next day is rest, cleaning and maintenance of bikes etc … The objective is now displayed, head south on Hanoi for a real restful rest. After about 30 km, the most direct route sends us on a track in very bad condition, but we always say that we saw worse (especially in Laos). On Maps.me it is strongly discouraged to take it, but we are very happy with our choice because the landscapes will still be a fantastic track and the place very remote. On the other hand one advances not quickly, and under these conditions 85 km are well worth 150 of flat. Once again at nightfall, we can not find an interesting place for camping. Note: next time consider the tent rather than the hammocks, which are sometimes difficult to set up, especially in the mountains and in the corners where there are no vegetation. Fortunately Steph is using a bit of his sympathy and we find a gang of friends at which we can squat. We spend the evening talking with the help of smartphones (thanks google). Tonight we really drink a lot because they have never seen guys like us, we are invited to two different dinners with all the shooters that it means. After a day like that, let us say it does great damages! We are with the village guys, a little bit of all generations. They all work in the fields, old-fashioned. We are lucky to be able to go on holiday here with an interesting purchasing power, but they never comment on it and do not accept anything from us apart from the beers.

At 6:30 in the morning we are awakened by Ching who makes us understand that we must go quickly because he is leaving for work. For Léo it is one of the hardest days because he drank with a little too much enthusiasm … The climb is a good medication though! We finally come out of the track of death around 9am, and we go to the Ba Be lake to rest in the afternoon and swim. There is finally a little water solo boulder (climbing over the water) to tey but it’s hardly lost because our arms and our dorsals are definitely in the closet …

Three days of cycling now separate us from Hanoi. The fatigue is heavy and we feel it on the morale, but the excitement of the long-awaited destination keeps us on the wheels! We also have in mind that it may be the last moments we spend in the mountains with such special scenes, and try to enjoy it;)

So we go through mountains and wonders south, skirting sometimes rivers, sometimes rice fields on a day which is still difficult but worth it. In the evening we camp at the edge of the water. Here we are almost in the plains and mosquitoes are back! ZzZZzzz … Paf …

Gradually the landscapes change and we enter the flat country: rice fields leave a little room for the tea fields, but also plastic … Are we approaching a capital city? After these two days we finish at the gates of Hanoi … To tell the truth it is with great astonishment that it will be done by small agricultural ways, looking almost like our beloved region in Alsace during the summer, with its ponds and swamps. Here we are already back home, the proof, the finisher picture is in front of a cathedral adjoining the hotel :).

So here we are in Hanoi, where we will regain our strength, meet friends from Laos and North Vietnam before heading to Cat Ba Island so as not to miss the beautiful Halong Bay!

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