(blogger : lockyhs )early start – the persistence of minibus – bike adventure begins in earnest – a three course reward – new friends in Sapa
pictures is illustration
The persistence of minibus
So it’s an early start – we are roused from our slumber in the hard sleeper cabin (seriously the way to go if you’re planning to sleep on an overnight train) at the crack of dawn and set about retrieving the bicycles from the luggage car.
I should say that the guide books are right – and I’m going to provide a bit of personal experience here – at Lao Cai station minibus drivers lie in wait ready to trap unsuspecting tourists to take them up the mountain to Sa Pa, the premier tourist destination of the region. Lao Cai incidentally sits about 3km from the border with China, and the whole town was destroyed when China invaded in 1979 though it looks about 30 years older.
But anyway, back to my rant.
So hoards of these minibus drivers, along with young men angling for tips or to take your bags without your consent to the minibuses, or other young men running onto the train
to catch you in your cabin putting your shoes on to ask you if you need a minibus, descend upon the tourists ready to snap them up like flies caught in a web.
Picture me standing out the front of a train station with two bicycles, fully loaded with panniers and touring gear at 7 in the morning, surrounded by minibus operators. These guys simply could not understand the relationship between my desire to go to Sa Pa and the bicycles I was obviously looking after (while Hil changed into her cycling kit). I mean, I’m generally considered a pretty gentle, understanding sort – but after 10 minutes of the SAME GUY asking me OVER AND OVER… anyway it went like this for about 10 minutes:
’40 thousand, minibus Sa Pa! You and two bicycles, 40 thousand!’
‘no thankyou. I’m going by bicycle’
’30 thousand! Minibus!’
’30 thousand! minibus!’
‘really, no. I’m going by bicycle – Xe Dap’ *pointing at bikes and hoping vietnamese word for bicycle will help in comprehension*
’30 thousand! minibus!’
ANYWAY so the guy just repeats himself and eventually calls a friend over, which is when I completely lose it and shout the bastard down – his friend barely opens his mouth before he cops the full brunt of my fury.
Happily, I don’t get a single offer for a minibus ride after that – but I do mistakenly get cross at an old lady for asking me to pay for my bicycle parking. Advice to tourists: catch a local bus from over the bridge for $2US rather than the $10 the drivers want from you.
We can’t upload pictures yet but when we get home Hil and I will post a video she took of the crowd gathered around our bicycles, staring, poking and pointing at our ridiculous lycra insanity.
The ride to Sapa
WELL, so at last we are able to set off on our bicyle adventure! The plan is looking good – we’ve got until 8am of the 10th (when we fly out of Phnom Penh) in mainland indochina to cycle our little legs off. We’re doing the ‘North by Northwest’ route in the Lonely Planet cycling guide to Vietnam Laos and Cambodia (thanks again Lisa Strain!) but in reverse. 3 days cycling to Dien Bien Phu (where I’ve been assured by the guy at the consulate foreigners are now able to cross into Laos) and then a bus to Luang Prabang and then a few weeks cycling south. Wonderful!
Day 10 of the route reads (and I paraphrase): “so after all your hard work up those ridiculous hills in the back of nowhere, FINALLY you’ve earned a day where you barely have to touch the pedals – and this is it! 30km of the best brake burning descent of your wildest dreams descending from Sapa to Lao Cai” blah blah blah
So we’re doing it in reverse. It’s not day 10 it’s day one and we’re full of optimism, high spirits, a bit of phlegm (in my chest but we’ll ignore it because of high spirits and optimism) and a fair bit of stupidity. It’s not a long ride up to Sapa – only 37 kms or so, but we should point out that 30 of that is the ascent. The road is great, a decent surface, but it’s basically a 10% gradient hill for 30 kms without relent – there are a couple of downhill cruises which chop a bit off the overall altitude gain, but it’s an incredible hill, and one that neither Hil nor I will forget.
Our bikes serve us credibly – Hil makes full use of her granny gears and I learn to stand up on the pedals without overbalancing (REALLY hard with panniers let me tell you). Hil doesn’t have clipped pedals or toe straps and wishes she could stand up on the pedals, and I wish I had a smaller cog on the pedal wheel (I’ve only got a 14 speed road tourer, without a small front cog for the really low gears) so we’re pretty even.
It takes us over 4 hours to go 30kms (with a few breaks for panting and collapsing etc). The scenery is absolutely breathtaking – we pass by roadside stands, as well as the stunning women of the Red Dao (Zao) and Black Hmong minority peoples (you can read about them elsewhere). As we ascend above the mist the scenery changes – lush green palms give way to alpine landscapes and incredible terrace farms. It’s a wonderfully rewarding day – by far the hardest of the trip so far but easily the best. We climb from about 400 metres to over 1700 and the last 10km or so are a real test of endurance. With our luggage and the occasionally ridiculous gradients of the road we do have to push our bikes up the steepest parts. Hil’s max heart rate is 183 for the day.
a three course reward
We cruise (or slide) into Sapa and have lunch at a restaurant overlooking the main square and facing the church – we are desprately hungry and consume our three courses each in record time. What a way to finish a ride!! Fantastic.
Hotel is the Cat Cat Hotel – formerly the Cat Cat guest house, the positive raps it has received in Lonely Planet and Moon guidebooks alike has been been very kind to Haum and her family who now own two buildings on opposite sides of the street. A former french villa we have the most amazing views and are treated very well at our temporary home. Looks like they’re on the way to founding their very own Cat Cat Empire! (cough cough)
Bew friends in Sapa
We met Nam earlier at Sonny’s adventure shop and trekking tours centre up the street from Cat Cat hotel. Sonny’s an absolute hoot and I buy some ‘playboy’ brand size 45 hiking shoes from him – finally replacing my campers which I have worn so smooth I can’t walk on anything wet, let alone attempt to climb a mountain. Sonny promises to pass my campers on to a very poor person – but I ask him to find someone who doesn’t intend to do any mountain climbing, and my shoes are in the ‘Ox’ territory for sizes so good luck Sonny!
I notice the next day that Sonny’s shop is shut – I think he’s gone on holiday with the money he made from my shoes!! Either that or he drank himself into a stupor with his mates in the shop after we left.
Sapa by night is cold – but I am a man of the Canberran persuasion so refuse to buy long trousers. My bare calves do get a few admiring glances from the locals! Incidentally I don’t know why but old Hmong women must think there’s something about me which says “Hi, I don’t want to buy your silver bracelet but I’m looking to buy some of your ‘hashish’!” because I’m approached a couple of times. I wouldn’t even know what to do with it once I bought it (though it looks like quite a lot for what she’s asking) so I decline. “One for the blog” says Hil.
Later on we meet Nam from Sonny’s shop in a restaurant (called Hmong cafe but like virtually all shops viet owned and run) and share some delicious locally made apple wine – a potent brew. I, however, am starting to feel a bit sick – I suspect my sinus and chest infection is catching up with me after the day’s exertion so we get an early night.