Off to a late start for SaPa (as much to Steffen’s horror, I like breakfast before embarking on bike adventures). SaPa for me was a fascinating place of breathtaking natural beauty where someone thought it a great idea to build large ski resort style apartments, put flashing lights on every street and out compete each other for tourism dollars by having the loudest music. It’s garish, but really lively and totally endearing. I think as a naturally tacky person, this style appeals to me. I also fell in love with a H’mong lady who tried to sell me some things as soon as we pulled up….she was lovely, lively, wily and made me “pinky promise” not to buy from anyone but her. I would have loved to spend the day chatting and walking to her village, but alas the bike journey must continue.
We had some tired legs at the start of our journey out of SaPa. The initial section was a bit of a climb which was challenging first up but the road quickly opened up into panoramic views of the most spectacular mountains all around. The entire journey was punctuated with ohhhs and ahhs and we turned yet another corner to see jagged mountains in the distance with well tended fields of small-scale farming of corn and leafy greens.
We were having such a good time that once we reached our original destination we decided to be bold and continue our day of biking bliss and do an extra 30 kms to the next town. Well, bliss quickly turned to ecstasy as we got off the larger roads and meandered through smaller villages where the terraced rice fields were starting to be tended, where all the houses were made of wood and bamboo and each had a buffalo, a few pigs, 100 or so free ranging chickens (and chicks😍), an aquaculture pond, some ducks, bananas, other fruit trees and a small field of vegetables. Suddenly the people were curious and friendly, the school children cheeky and the adults dressed in beautiful traditional clothes with colourful headscarves and dark leggings. We felt that we got a really lucky peek into village life. The extra kilometres were a total delight.
We arrived very happy but really exhausted at dusk in Loi Chau…a modern and spacey city a million miles away from our day of riding. The story goes that this town was once sleepy but it was decided that it should be turned into a provincial capital- containing all the important government services and buildings. We arrived from the outskirts into a crazy 6-lane highway - but with absolutely no traffic! We road through roundabouts, multi-land streets, all with only a smattering of mopeds or cars. It reminded me of Canberra, but where people hadn’t bothered to move there and follow the jobs. It also had large deserted parks, an incredible artificial lake (complete with incarcerated swans with little swan hotels) and the whole place was lit up at night….think flashing and multicoloured, everywhere: lights around the lake, lights wrapped around the street lamps, flashing lights on the larger buildings, large signs, flashing, flashing, flashing. Weird thing is, although it looked vibrant, the “inner city” was dead as a dodo…. We had real trouble finding somewhere to eat (in Vietnam!). After riding around in a number of dark and deserted streets we finally found a place that did us the most amazing hotpot and we rolled back to our hotel proclaiming it “the best day ever”.
After a poor night’s sleep with some sore, recovering legs and a really hard bed (turns out our mattresses were styrofoam, taking firm mattress to another level!!) we decided to do a short day to the small town of Phong Tho. We have had another delightful day of riding, through more picturesque villages, very elegant traditional ladies in their black head-dresses and clothing and cheeky school children (the children always seem to be on the road either walking to or from school – some of them had long mountainous paths to travel!). It’s been great to come into some of these smaller towns where tourist dollar is not so central to life and everyday life continues on.
Today we road to Murong Lay. The day started off with what Max has coined the “mayonnaise pizza incident” (AKA the MPI), whereby our pre-bought delicious breakfast of a local pizza-style bread turned into a cruelly disappointing inedible mayonnaise-laden soggy mess; none of us managed to swallow even a mouthful. MPI: where something looking absolutely perfect and enticing turns out to be be a useless or inedible object. We’re now using it in our everyday vernacular, however, luckily today we’ve not needed to use it again. I’m expecting it to make into the Macquarie dictionary by the time we’re back next year. Today turned out to be another wonderful day – 80 kms very much so off the beaten track. Again, we rode through small villages, some of them ridiculously picturesque, others unapologetically industrial. As we’ve gotten further off the tourist routes, Max has become of increasing interest to people. People tend to giggle at him incredulously (what a strange young thing), run out of their houses to catch a glimpse of him or (much to his horror), stroke his beautiful long, blond hair. Everyone wants to know whether he’s a boy or girl and the older ladies in particular are hilarious in gesticulating these questions.