Back in the summer of 2011 Phong and I set put to explore a route for a new tour in NE Vietnam, a ride that turned out to be one of the best cycling journeys I have been on. The following is from my blog at the the time.
Try as I might I couldn’t get back to sleep; the pleasing green glow of my watch told me that we should arrive in Lao Cai station in half an hour anyway, so donning my shorts I jumped down from my upper bunk to great the day. I peered from the window, “It’s raining” I said little disgruntled. “Oh yes, it’s the raining season” said Phong enthusiasticly. The journey had been quite splendid. We had a cosy AC sleeper compartment that slept four; Phong and I, and a pair of Vietnamese businessmen who provided seemingly convivial conversation for Phong and occasional close company for me as the chap in the bunk opposite to mine scrambled and flayed alarmingly as he tried to get to and from his bed, and, during the turmoil generally ended up clambering around my bunk for a while before apologising profusely and commencing some interesting acrobatics as he tried once again to access his own bed.
We clambered down from the train, “it’s cold” I said, “oh yes” said Phong, it’s the rain season”.
The rain ceased within an hour and we made our way along a lovely narrow winding road, all but devoid of traffic. The road climbed and fell through plantations of rubber, banana, cinnamon, and fig as well as tapioca, which I thought, until Phong informed me I was a fool, was marijuana.
We lunched at a convivial little spot where, it would appear from his popularity with the jovial hostess and her family, Phong dines regularly. We sat for a while after lunch digesting and observing the increase in temperature and the lack of decrees in humidity. The sun was by now having a look at the day and was encouraging the recent rain to evaporate, turning Vietnam into a sauna. It took quite some cajoling and encouraging, as well as a few prods with a small stick to get Phong away from the fan and onto his bike. “How hot is it do you think?” he asked as he threw a leg over his bike. I checked, it was thirty nine degrees.
I find that below 35ºC I function quite normally, above I begin to feel warm, a tad sweaty, and somewhat lethargic. Fortunately as the altitude increased the temperature dropped. 37, 36, 35. When it reached 34º I became concerned about the clothing I had with me. I was travelling with just summer clothes and started to lament not bringing a couple of layers of marino wool. “I could buy something” I told myself, and then I realised that it was still 34ºC and that hyperthermia was unlikely.
The following day dawned cool and overcast, I know that is how it dawned because my companion had expressed a keenness to leave early and, being the considerate soul I am, I did all I could to accommodate and consequently very nearly witnessed the day dawn. Not only did it dawn convivially for cycling it also proved to be one of the finest days cycling I have had for………well, one of the finest days cycling I have had. It was steep and rough and rural. Most of the ride was on unsealed tracks close to the Chinese border, trough scenery that, at the risk of using overworked cliches was fairy tale like, Lord of the Rings-esque, beautiful, stunning, remote and, well, it was just wonderful.
As you may have gathered, I am enjoying this ride, and very much looking forward to whatever may lay ahead.
The way was populated by minority people. In the beginning we had Flowery Hmong, so called because they are Hmong and unlike the Black Hmong who favour black, they wear bright multi coloured skirts and colourful hats. There were Blue Tay who were distinguishable from the Green Tay, with whom they seemed to get along very well, by their blue skirts and hats. There are many minority peoples in Lao and Vietnam and China, and in general so far as I can ascertain the only difference between them is the colour of the ladies hats and shirts and skirts, all that is except for the Dzao People who are distinguishable by their overwhelming lack of beauty. It strikes me as quite astonishing that in a country populated by the most remarkable abundance of remarkably beautiful women there should be one small group of people who are so visually unappealing. There was a comic when I was a lad called The Eagle that in one story featured a race of aliens (weather goodies or baddies I cannot recall for sure, baddies I suspect though) who had the most incredibly huge foreheads, and as a result were rather un-hansom. Whenever I see the Dzao people it is these aliens that spring to mind. I mentioned this to Phong and he assures me that their foreheads are no bigger than normal and they too are beautiful, their’s is a look that is cultured and cherished and amongst themselves is considered the hight of visual agreeability. The look is created apparently with over zealous use of a razor, and I, apparently, am an ‘uncultured philistine’
The ride was, as I have mentioned, quite wonderful. Like many wonderful things though it did not come without a little effort, or what at some stages we considered to be considerable effort. The tracks were in places quite rough and rocky, and the climbs were of a gradient where putting enough power through the peddles to chivy the bicycle into motion was enough to have a chap quickly sitting on the ground behind his bicycle wondering quite how he had got there.