Ride day 3: Sa Pa to Viet Quang (via Chinese boarder at Lao Cai)
17 May 2016
We were up nice and early for the days ride. A healthy final breakfast at the excellent Heart of Sa Pa hotel. Ha being the ultimate hostess and almost force feeding us food. Checked out, and made our way to load up the bikes, which had been stored in a local kindergarten playground for the last few days.
Managed to hit the road shorty after 9:30 a.m. Rolling out through the market back streets of Sa Pa, up past the main square and park then out on to the road towards Lao Cai. It’s a good time of day to set off since the early trains in to Lao Cai have already been and gone, and transported their load of tourists to the Sa Pa area. It’s a good stretch of road with very few potholes, but can be extremely busy. A few buses and trucks pass us two abreast around blind corners giving very little extra room on the road.
As we approach Lao Cai, the traffic begins to get considerably heavier. A couple of other western riders on older Win bikes pass us on the way in to Lao Cai and stop at the fruit and juice markets at the side of the road.
We continue on, passing by the turn off to the border checkpoint with China, and on to the main road up towards Bac Ha (a mountain tribe market town we visited a few days before). The road here out of Lao Cai is probably the best we’ve ridden so far in Vietnam. Two lanes with a central reservation and freshly laid Tarmac.
The road begins to wind up in to the hills, and soon the virgin Tarmac is gone and replaced with the potholed windy roads we’ve become more accustomed to. We reach the Bac Ha junction and head to the right on to roads we’ve not yet travelled. It seems most of the traffic headed up to Bac Ha, as we are now riding almost empty roads. It’s here we notice that the scenery is changing again. We are leaving the high mountains of Sa Pa behind. More forest and small hamlets with thatched cottages on stilts and little farms are now the norm. Everywhere we look is a beautiful little farm. The map (maps.me) is telling us that our left hand turn off is 16km away and “muddy”. Probably not a good sign!
We reach the left hand turn off, and are pleasantly surprised to find a near perfect country road. We follow it up and up the hill past farms and paddy fields, until we reach the top of the valley and start descending. We pull in to a small shack where an old man is playing with his grandson. A couple of ice cold orange drinks from their freezer and we take a seat, watching the little puppy and kitten both check out our bikes with interest. The old man joins us at the table and talks to us in Vietnamese. We manage to gather his grandson is 3 years old. The rest of the “conversation” was nods, smiles and hand gestures… But all very nice.
As we set off again, we’re looking forward to more picturesque Vietnamese country views on an excellent country road. It only takes us a few more km through the pass to realise this won’t be the case.
We pass a sign telling us we are leaving Lao Cai province, and instantly the road quality deteriorates from neatly tarmac’ed road to rocky, rough and dusty trail. We caught up to a large truck at the start of the trail, so watch it descend for a while whilst we take a break. The truck is not moving fast!!!
A French couple appear almost from nowhere, sharing a small scooter with their bag on the back. They ask about how far the bad road goes, but we can only guess from what we’ve seen. It’s 16km to our target destination for the night, so we set off down the dirt track. It’s bumpy. Very bumpy! 2nd gear and a lot of concentration bumpy!!!!
We take it very easy down this stretch of “road”, and encounter far more traffic than we would have expected. A lot of construction work, articulated lorries, cement trucks and then scooters galore. This is interspersed with a lot of saw mills and wood drying piles. Meaning a lot of activity on the roads.
We make it to our planned destination town (Yen Binh) at 3.30 p.m. It’s a small village with a lot of building work going on. There is one small guest house, but we decide to push on to Viet Quang (26km away). It’s a beautiful sunny day, and apart from the dust, it’s a perfect riding day.
The rocky trail continues on and off for about the next 24 km. Patches of decent Tarmac appear, as if to taunt us. Then a huge series of potholes or thick sand are thrown in to catch you out. It’s a real test of a ride on this section, and we’re thankful it’s dry. In some sections the oncoming trucks take up the entire road, and leave a huge tail of dust. Forcing everything in their path in to the ruts at the side of the road.
As we approach Viet Quang, the roads miraculously improve again. A smooth last few km in to town. We did a cruise up the Main Street and saw a few hotels and Nha Nghi (local guest houses/rest stops. We select one and pull in to the garage.
After turning off the bikes, we’re directed to the 5th floor. A little girl of about 7 greets us at reception and calls her mum who gives us a quick look at the room. It’ll do for the night. We agree on a price of 400VND (c. 18USD) for the night, and quickly unpack the bikes so we can grab a shower and get the dust off us.
Viet Quang seems to be a market town, with lots of shops selling building supplies and industrial goods as well as white goods. We take a wander and find a supermarket to get some drinks, then walk back to check out the street food. Seems to mainly consist of intestine and tendons, so we continue walking and step in to a local eatery. We’re ushered to the pans to choose our food, and minutes later sit down to a dinner of cold yellow chicken, steamed rice, morning glory and tomato steamed. Delicious!
A final wander down the road to our hotel (which now it’s dark quite clearly has a large karaoke attached), and an early night.
The full 180km route from Sapa to Viet Quang here: