Trecherous mountain roads, rain and freezing temperatures are not enough to deter Walter Pearson from a unique travel experience in Vietnam’s northwest.
Riding down into the Nam Mu River valley with the 3140 metre-high Mt Fansipan looming on my left, I realised what an adventure I was having. Behind me lay nearly a thousand kilometres of cold, cloud-shrouded mountain passes, rough roads, exotic ethnic minorities and stunning valley views. Before me, nearly 300 kilometres of the same was to come.
Of more immediate concern, the day was fading. I am on a 15-year-old 125cc Honda Bonus with a weak headlight. I do not want to be caught in the dark on the winding mountain road with its potholes and unpredictable surface.
A train had delivered our bikes to Hanoi. Seven of us, all more than 50 years old, were taking a six-day tour of the northwest loop in rice transplanting season. First, it was southwest from Hanoi to Hoa Binh with its massive dam and hydroelectric plant, then Mai Chau, popular with western tourists taking in the ethnic minority experience.
Outside Mai Chau, we encounter the 1000 metre-high Moc Chau Pass covered in cloud and the remains of a land-slide that had killed two people a week before. For kilometres along the top of the mountains visibility is down to metres, temperatures in the teens. The sun returns as we drop down and chase tributaries of the Da River into valleys studded with mustard-coloured bamboo. Next stop, Son La.
Son La snuggles sweetly on the foothills of the Su Xung Chao Chai Range. On one of its hills are the remains of a notorious French prison. After a night at the Trade Union Hotel, we follow a river valley of waterwheels to the Tuan Giao Track, crossing the 900 metre Tan Quai pass into Dien Bien Phu. Here in 1954, Vietnamese forces defeated the French in a siege battle that drove the French from Vietnam.
Ethnic Thais dominate the region. Thai women are tall, slim and attractive. Married women wear their hair in a chignon with an innocent-looking silver hairpin, in reality a spikey weapon against would-be attackers. We spend a day visiting battle-related sites and the headquarters of the opposing commanders, Vo Nguyen Giap and Christian de Castries.
Along the way to Lai Chau, a huge lake sits behind the dam on the Nam Mu River. Below the dam are whole communities relocated because of this and other dam projects. In the run up to the Hong Thu Man Pass, the road is being rebuilt. We endure 50 kilometres, mostly uphill, of bone-jarring and bum-numbing terrain. We arrive at our hotel ravenous and covered in fine dust. We feast that evening and down one of the smoothest drinks I have ever had, Hanoi Ruou. It takes the kinks out of our bones and puts feeling back into our bums.
At a local market, ethnic women surprise us. Women of the Man group wear a complex headdress of a coiled rope with a silver superstructure. H’Mong have bright tartans and wear heavily pleated, colourful skirts. No matter how many times you see the ethnic minorities, their day-to-day dress is still striking.
In the valley west of Mt Fansipan, we lunch at a restaurant whose specialities are fighting cock, cat and rabbit. We choose river whitebait (Ca Suoi), curried goat (De Xao Lan), tofu fried in tomato sauce, boiled spinach (Cai Luoc) and steamed rice. Now we have to cross the Mt Fansipan Range to reach Nghia Lo before night.
We grind up to the Khau Pha Pass, nothing more than a crack in the ridge. Beyond it, backhoes are clearing a recent landslide. Every so often vehicles are allowed through. We bounce, bump and slide across the debris of rocks and mud, slip past tip-trucks before they gain speed and hang the bikes into the corners. The mountains of the Hoang Lien Son Range frown down from the clouds as the sun sinks towards them.
Nghia Lo is the rice bowl and the teacup of northern Vietnam. Rice fields litter the valley floor. Tea stacks up on the hillsides. With all that tea, no wonder good coffee is so rare in the north. We make Nghia Lo with enough light to find the motel and see it looks suspiciously like a brothel.
The next day’s run through the undulating hills onto the Red River Delta is easy. We make Viet Tri and its major attraction, the shrine to the legendary Hung Vuong kings. Then it’s a doddle of just 80 kilometres to Hanoi. Unfortunately it is 80 kilometres of traffic, drizzle, mist, falling temperatures and blackening skies. We cross the Thang Long Bridge in the dark, frozen and struggling to see in the rain and mist.
I linger in the hotel shower, warming myself to the core. All that remains is to put the bikes on the train for Ho Chi Minh City and take the two hour plane trip back. I give in to a sense of self-satisfaction.