Vietnam 3: “The Tonkinese Alps”

After my jaunt down to Saigon, I returned to Hanoi with about ten days left on my Vietnam visa. Definitely not enough time to ride back down south (1750km), but too much time to either just sit around Hanoi or make a beeline to the Chinese border (300km). I consulted the Lonely Planet and came across the following:

“The most rewarding journey in this region is the ‘northwest loop.’ Head for Mai Chau, then Son La and Dien Bien Phu then north to Lai Chau, Sapa, and Back to Hanoi. The loop is best with a 4WD or motorbike, in case the highways are cut and a bit of off-roading is required. Allow at least a week for this journey, and considerably more time if braving the local buses. And three cheers for the hardy cyclists who pump up and down these roads.”

Hey, I want to be one of those “hardy cyclists!” I mean, the LP isn’t quite the Guinness Book, but wouldn’t it be cool to get a mention, even if ex post facto? Not to mention that the Hoang Lian mountains (also called the Tonkinese Alps) are home to several of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities, and are also the seat of its highest mountain, Fansipan. After several weeks of trains, buses, cafes, and hanging out with friends from a past life, it felt like it was time to see the other side of Vietnam. I had been assured by the owner of the Hanoi Bicycle Collective that the roads were all in good shape, so off I set.

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It wasn’t long (well, about 100km) until I had made it out of the Hanoi sprawl and into the rice paddies. China, of course, also has thousands (millions? more?) of km^2 of rice paddies, but not quite on the scale of Vietnam’s. Not so huge, not so layered, and also perhaps not so green in March – someone on the train told me that the Vietnamese usually harvest three crops of rice per year. No matter how many of these terrace cascades I saw, I never got tired of their tessellations, their flawless combination of agriculture and aesthetics.

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First of many challenges: a mountain about 700m high. The ascent took me a solid two hours and was pretty nerve-wracking due to the fog that thickened minute by minute. As I neared the top, I could hardly see more than ten or fifteen meters in front of me; scooters that came up from behind me and whizzed past disappeared into the mist within about ten seconds.

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The reward: when I hit the top of the mountain, the mist and cold vanished immediately, replaced by the sun and humidity that I was used to. As I said to the two motorcyclists I met up top, that moment of coming over the summit easily made all the climbing worthwhile. Actually, to be more dramatic about it: I can’t imagine that the view would actually have been so breathtaking had I not worked so hard to reach it.

…or maybe it would be and I just don’t want to feel like an idiot for all this self-imposed struggle.

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Two hours up, twenty minutes down. Little did I know that a wedding would be a-waiting…

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The wedding festivities were all over by ten PM, but left me in pretty terrible condition regardless. If not for my visa deadline and for the ridiculous price of accommodation in Mai Chau ($10), I would probably have stayed an extra day. As it was, though, I just slothed around town for a few hours, took a nap, and checked out of the hotel at about 1pm to take on the second challenge: a 1200m climb. This one took me about five hours, with pretty frequent stop to munch on some fried sticky rice powder doughnuts I had bought in town.

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As I ascended, things got dense, lush, and took on a sort of mythical aura. I felt like I was in a different world – maybe Hobbitland, or maybe the stories of the Brothers Grimm? This tree gave me the willies big time. It was also around here that I began to see my first hill tribe women, usually wearing giant wicker-basket backpacks, and always adorned with colorful head-dresses.

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As there were no hotels up there in the mountains, I had no choice but to stock up on fruit and snacks at a little shop before setting up camp at a school. It was warm enough that I decided not to bother pitching my tent; this would also facilitate an early escape, before any kiddos showed up in the morning. I slept pretty well, except for the part where the semi-domesticated pig came to root around in the bushes. Luckily, my stench repelled him and he gave me no trouble.

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Despite all the camping I’ve done over the past seven months, I think this might have been the first time I actually sat and watched the sunrise.

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It was also the first time that I passed a river that was both clean and convenient to swim in. Very necessary when the temperature is topping 40C (104F).

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I felt conflicted about taking pictures of the hill tribe folk. What would American parents think if some stranger was walking through their neighborhood taking pictures of their children? Or of the parents themselves as they went about a normal day’s work? Does the fact that each tribe’s women all dress and wear their hair the same way give me the right to photograph them? How about the fact that I think it’s awesome/rusting/intriguing the way they carry their infants around on their back with beautiful little slings? At this point, I opted for just taking pictures of their houses when they weren’t looking.

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And of their rice paddies. Surely they wouldn’t mind that.

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That night, I reached a town but couldn’t find a hotel for less than $9. With an already-paid-for tent and sleeping bag on my bike, how can I justify spending a whole day’s worth of food money just for a few walls? As I sat at the side of the road eating a coconut and wondering if I was being too stingy, a guy approached me and started chatting me up in pretty broken English. With the help of a wireless signal that just happened to be in range, I was able to use my phone to tell him I wanted to camp; he led me to a nearby soccer field and then went on his way. Score! Camping in the middle of the city! I get to eat dinner at a restaurant, have fruit and baguettes and other goodies for breakfast as soon as I wake up, and sleep for free in between.

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The next day was when things got tough. Rather than follow the A6 highway all the way up and around the Hoang Lian mountains, I opted to take a “shortcut” directly through them…and also to take a shortcut to the shortcut. The website I use to give me altitude graphs and all that made it look like it wouldn’t be too bad – just a constant series of small climbs and drops for 150km or so. What it didn’t tell me was that there would be hardly anything (tourist-wise) in between. Just heavily deforested mountains, stilt houses, hill tribe folks, and little children screaming “Hello!” out of every house I passed by. I must have greeted about ten thousand children. As far as I could tell, none asked for money. One chased me and gave my backpack a big smack with a bamboo slat. After I yelled at him, several of his friends came up and pushed my bike while I pedaled uphill. If only I could have a whole team of them following me around!

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The ride was uncannily similar to a Vipassana – nobody to talk to, no computer, no time to do anything other than punish my knees. My mind whirred constantly, only stopping when I turned on my mp3 player and shoved the earbuds as close to my brain as I could get them. Was I terribly alone, or totally free?Was this the hardest thing I’d ever done, or the most beautiful? Why had I chosen to go off by myself rather than renew my Chinese visa and ride south with the Vietnamese girl, the Chinese girl, and the Czech/Slovenian hippie couple? What am I proving, riding out here all alone, refusing to eat meat and buy things that come in plastic bags while the locals themselves chop down trees and drive around in imported cars?

Whatever the answers, I had made my choice, and there was only one way to get to the Chinese border. Might as well try to savor the scenery on the way.

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Hours later, there was really nothing. Not even villages. Not even huts.

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…not even a road on my map. Shit. I need to get a phone with GoogleMaps. Screw you, Nokia.

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Luckily I passed this monstrosity. The workers informed me that I was indeed on the right path.

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Even so, I wasn’t going to take my chances riding on the road after dark. I pitched my tent in the most isolated spot I could find…behind a big dirt clod next to the main road. The next morning, it only took me about two minutes’ of riding to get to a sign telling me that I would soon be back on the map. A burden was lifted, all that fear that had built up the night before began to dissipate. It may also have helped that the grandpa who sat next to me at the noodle shop where I had breakfast insisted that I take two shots of vodka with him. At 8 in the morning. Note to self: don’t just say “I will drink with you, but only one shot.” Say that, of course, but also, after drinking, throw the shot glass out the window or spike it into the ground. Or just go dump it with the dirty dishes. In any case, make it physically impossible for the other party to offer you a drink, short of feeding you with the bottle.

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Now that I had the bulk of the ride behind me, and only one major obstacle left before the Chinese border, it hit me: this is my last chance to photograph adorable Vietnamese country children. Goodbye, inhibitions!

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…and their grandparents, if they insist.

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One more night of camping out under the stars, this time at the base of Fansipan. Three days left until my visa expires and only 80km to cover. So what if there’s a 2000m high mountain pass to conquer first? I was already at 1100m, so I was starting with the job practically halfway done.

I decided to try to zen out on the ride up: no music or podcasts, no constant checking of elevation. Just enjoy this last bit of Vietnam; nature at its quitest, its most inaccessible, its most pure.

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By this time, I was pretty in tune with the process of climbing up mountains for hours and hours. You always think you’re near the top – first because you’re exhausted and you just can’t imagine it being any further, and second because 99% of what you can see is behind/below you; everything that’s in front of you is cut off by switchbacks. I had learned to laugh at this thought every time it popped up, thinking instead: “this switchback will definitely not be the last.” I was thus able to ride in peace. For four or five hours, talk to a pair of Hungarian tourists who were doing the same route by minibus, a pair of British tourists who had Vietnamese guides chauffering them around on motorcycles, and a pair of Americans who had rented a motorbike for the day.

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Mission accomplished: 30km of steady climbing. Free from distraction, free from worry, and perhaps most surprising, free from any sort of physical pain. Oh, and all I had had to eat was a couple bananas, a handful of raw peanuts, and a bowl full of 3 day old minicookies. I tell you what, the human body is an amazing thing. Not only because it can achieve such feats, but also because it (well, some of them) houses a mind that can even want to. When I finally hit the final pass, I could barely contain my joy. Had I been alone, I would have screamed as loud as I could, probably wrecking my voice for days to come. Instead, surrounded by motorcycle tourists, I just lightly hopped around inside the bamboo lookout cage, shaking the bars like a monkey, sticking my head out through the latticework, looking at the road below, thinking…”Jesus, did I just do that?”

The obvious question to ask myself here is, “was it worth it?” At moments like that one, though, at the top of the mountain, full of pride and adrenaline and whatever else, the question doesn’t even make sense. What are those “its” even referring to? All of my memories of riding through drowsiness, despite heat, regardless of hunger, over interminable stretches – they had all disappeared. There had been no pain, no trouble on the way. All of it had simply been a part of the path – and this had been the only path ever since the a week before when I stepped out of the door of my friend’s house in Hanoi and started riding southwest rather than north. Everything that I had at one point or another cursed having melted into nothing but a necessary part of the journey. There was nothing for anything else to be worth, no comparing or calculating to be done. Everything was as it was, and had led me to where it had. Even looking back on it now ten days later, even though I can recall all of it, the only thing I can still feel is the joy.

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50km to the Chinese border, all downhill! See ya later Vietnam, thanks for the memories. And the lessons. Whatever they may wind up being.

This entry was posted in "Spirituality", The Road, Vietnam and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Vietnam 3: “The Tonkinese Alps”

  1. 썌키 says:

    Pic of grandma(pa?) is the bestest.

  2. Sunny Yun says:

    안녕, 사부!

    I don’t know exactly when but I remember I came home at night after cycling and told Aeghi “It is freaking cold!!! How can Mike cycle all over loading heavy stuff on his bike and sleep in a tent?”

    When I cycled from Mokpo to Naju starting at around 04:00pm and arriving at 7:30ish at the beginning of March. It was when I properly learned how to use gears from Julian. It was definitely moment of learning more about myself.

    Cycling from my house to Nampodong and back home used to be a great challenge, from Mokpo to Naju was like winning a championship, then, cycling in Hamyang, Namwon, Gokseong, Gwangju, Mokpo and Jeju started to believe “Impossible is Nothing.”

    My bottom line is here; what you are doing is very much worthwhile. You have been inspiring many people and one of them is me.

    Thank you, Mike and enjoy your ride!

    I tell you what, the human body is an amazing thing. Not only because it can achieve such feats, but also because it (well, some of them) houses a mind that can even want to. When I finally hit the final pass, I could barely contain my joy. Had I been alone, I would have screamed as loud as I could, probably wrecking my voice for days to come. Instead, surrounded by motorcycle tourists, I just lightly hopped around inside the bamboo lookout cage, shaking the bars like a monkey, sticking my head out through the latticework, looking at the road below, thinking…”Jesus, did I just do that?”

    The obvious question to ask myself here is, “was it worth it?” At moments like that one, though, at the top of the mountain, full of pride and adrenaline and whatever else, the question doesn’t even make sense. What are those “its” even referring to? All of my memories of riding through drowsiness, despite heat, regardless of hunger, over interminable stretches – they had all disappeared. There had been no pain, no trouble on the way. All of it had simply been a part of the path – and this had been the only path ever since the a week before when I stepped out of the door of my friend’s house in Hanoi and started riding southwest rather than north. Everything that I had at one point or another cursed having melted into nothing but a necessary part of the journey. There was nothing for anything else to be worth, no comparing or calculating to be done. Everything was as it was, and had led me to where it had. Even looking back on it now ten days later, even though I can recall all of it, the only thing I can still feel is the joy.

  3. Sunny Yun says:

    안녕, 사부!

    I don’t know exactly when but I remember I came home at night after cycling and told Aeghi “It is freaking cold!!! How can Mike cycle all over loading heavy stuff on his bike and sleep in a tent?”

    When I cycled from Mokpo to Naju starting at around 04:00pm and arriving at 7:30ish at the beginning of March. It was when I properly learned how to use gears from Julian. It was definitely moment of learning more about myself.

    Cycling from my house to Nampodong and back home used to be a great challenge, from Mokpo to Naju was like winning a championship, then, cycling in Hamyang, Namwon, Gokseong, Gwangju, Mokpo and Jeju started to believe “Impossible is Nothing.”

    My bottom line is here; what you are doing is very much worthwhile. You have been inspiring many people and one of them is me.

    Thank you, Mike and enjoy your ride!

  4. A guest says:

    Awe~~~some! This is the only word I can say now. Nothing more than this.

  5. Jeff says:

    Awesome post! I like all the thinking you do.

  6. Andy says:

    Awesome pictures. Those rice paddies are amazing.
    Keep the posts coming.