Sapa, North Vietnam
While in Hanoi I kept hearing great things about a small town called Sapa in north Vietnam close to the Chinese border. My travel style is show up, talk to some folks and figure it out. Sapa sounded good so I booked an overnight sleeper bus through Hanoi Rocks Hostel where I was staying. It departed Hanoi at 9pm and arrived in Sapa at 6am. The drive is only 6 hours but you spend 2 hours parked at a bus depot until sunrise when the shuttle comes. Why? We may never know.
The bus had 3 columns of double decked seats that recline almost all the way. Your feet slide into a cubby under the persons head in front of you. It’s tight and this was one of those times I was glad to be short. Thankfully I had some Diazepam I had bought in Hanoi or a wouldn’t have slept a bit. An eye mask, earplugs and 10mg of Valium work wonders for a long cramped bus ride. I woke up at 5am in all but pitch black. The bus was stuffy and the windows foggy with condensation as we must have been parked for an hour with the only ventilation coming from the open door at the front and the small emergency hatch in the center of the roof.
It started to get light and people were stirring. I looked outside and there were a few Vietnamese women starring right at me and gesturing for me to come outside — confused, I closed the curtain. When I did step outside it looked like a scene straight out of Dante’s Peak. Misty fog everywhere as if ash from a volcano hadn’t finished falling. The Vietnamese women were now asking me if I needed a homestay which made sense. I brushed them off.
On the way to our homestay we couldn’t see much. All we knew is we were on a tiny road that looked like it had a thousand foot drop off the edge. A bit unnerving but my attitude towards these things is — it’s out of my hands. If we go over we go over. No sense in getting all worked up about it. What am I going to do? Tuck and roll out of the van and walk my way through the ash?
The homestay was down in the valley of the rice terraces and as the day went on the fog lifted considerably but not completely. I had only booked the bus and the homestay while everyone else had payed an extra $50 to do a 5 hour hike through the rice fields. I thought about it but wasn’t feeling the weather and was still a bit tired. I also thought, given the remote area, this would be a perfect place to practice my motorbike skills. I had rented one in Bali for the first time and knew that if you really wanted to see the countries of South East Asia a motorbike was the way to do it. After breakfast I arranged to have one dropped off at 1pm and took a nap until noon.
The motorbike was bright red and as I always do decided on a name for her. Cherry Bomb was a metallic red manual bike with a Hanoi Rocks Hostel sticker plastered on her front. I had never ridden a manual bike before and no one was around to answer my questions so I had to figure it out on my own. All I knew was you have to shift gear with your foot so I had that on my side. I spent some time on the roads around the rices fields figuring it out. Much easier than I thought. I expected it to be similar to a car where you had to press the clutch down and then shift gears. But on this bike (and I’m pretty sure this is not the case with most manuals) you just had to press your left toe or heel down to shift. There was no clutch lever on the left handle. Took me a bit to figure the down shift part but once I got that it was relatively simple. The front brake was squeaky and didn’t work so well so I figured the most effective breaking was a combo of both the rear and front brakes.
My destination was Love Waterfall north of Sapa. Round trip would be 50km. I marked the route with google maps and started off. The road signs in the rice fields are virtually non existent and I found myself off track quickly. Looking at the maps route I was still on the ‘alternate route’ provided by google. I continued on. The roads were steep uphill and I learned quickly to down shift for more torque on inclines. This is newbie stuff but hey, that’s what I am. Eventually the road started degrading from cement to gravel and small rocks. As I continued onwards the rocks got bigger until I was off roading on trails better suited for a quad. I was a bit nervous at this point. Looking at the map I was a bit more than halfway to where the two routes converged. I paused, contemplated and thought — I COULD make it if I kept going but there was no one around and if something happened, well I didn’t want to wind up in a 127 Hours situation. I decided to back track and try the other route. If it was as rocky I would give up and return defeated. Side note — Fuck you google maps for thinking that was a legit route.
Going downhill is a bitch when you don’t know what you are doing. And this was DOWNHILL. It was so rocky and difficult to control the bike as you quickly gain speed without any gas at all. Since the front brake wasn’t the greatest I decided to lean the rear. This was a mistake. As I quickly learned the back wheel locks up and skids if you you apply to much pressure. Add to this rocky terrain and you loose control fast. I want to mention the bike was in neutral this entire time so I never gained that much speed but at one point the rear wheel did lock up and I ended up bailing on the bike as it tipped over. Lesson learned. I picked the bike up and gripped the front brake as hard as I could. Slightly relieving pressure I was able to slide down at a manageable speed and eventually found myself on paved roads again. I made it back to the original route and it was clean as a whistle and the same one we took on our way to the homestay.
I rode 15km north to Sapa as the sun came out. Looking down at the sweeping rice valleys was amazing. By the time I reached Sapa I felt much more comfortable on the bike, but that was on open roads. City driving is different. Lots of traffic no rules of the road. It’s really every motorbike for itself. I was cautious and navigated my way through the town slowly. I stopped for an hour and strolled around. By the lake there were groups of teenagers playing a game that was a mix between hacky sack and badminton. They were further spread apart than you would be in a hack circle and were kicking around something similar to a shuttlecock (that thing in badminton). Strong sweeping kicks would send it soaring across the circle and they got some good volleys going. I thought about joining but just admired.
Before I started the next leg north I had some jasmine tea in town. Once I got out of Sapa the views along the winding mountain roads were incredible. In the distance was a towering mountain wall and below a valley thousands of feet deep. Clouds were resting between various peaks that surrounded Mt. Fansipan — the roof of Indochina. The sun was brilliant and I was in awe. Glad I decided to rent the motorbike and proud that I overcame my fear of it. I stopped at multiple places along the way before I made my way to the gate leading to Love Waterfall. At least they told me it was Love waterfall but looking at pictures afterwards I’m not so sure I was in the right place. Either way is was still amazing.
It was 4:30pm and the walk to the falls took 20 minutes. I figured I would be back on the road home at 5:30 and with the sun setting at 6:45 with 30 mins of light thereafter I would have double the time I needed to make it back before dark. The walk to the falls was nice and quite. Along the way I saw four water buffalo doing there thing in a small pond. I creeped up 15 meters from them before deciding that was close enough. These things were huge! After my poor attempt at some NatGeo type photography I continued to the falls. It was pleasant and I sat for awhile relaxing before starting the return walk.
When I arrived back at my motorbike there was a thick mist cloud rolling in. Not good. The 2 hours of daylight I gave myself was shortening by the minute. Furthermore, I couldn’t route myself back to the homestay without wifi and — like a moron, I forgot to mark it on maps.me. I decided the best course of action was ride to Sapa grab some wifi and route myself back. After I got my route I quickly set off. The fog was thickening and it was cold with no sunlight. I didn’t think to bring a jacket. It was still relatively light out. I figured I could make it back before dark so I wasn’t too worried.
Most of the ride was downhill — which again wasn’t easy for me. I was riding the brakes pretty hard. Whenever possible I would cozy up behind another motorbike and follow their lead. It worked out well. Finally I reached the valley of the rice fields when the last bit of light disappeared but felt alright knowing I was close.
That feeling faded fast.
The roads in the rice valley are complex and it was too dark to make sense of anything. My blue google maps dot wasn’t doing me much good and I was driving through small villages with the only light coming from people burning their trash and the bikes dim headlight (it was only bright when you gave it some good gas). I started to get nervous that I would not find my way back. Still, I had the route on google maps so I kept following that and eventually landed on the star that was marked and felt relieved. Except the star I had marked was not where I expected to be! Now I was really worried. What if I got it wrong? Did I mark the wrong place?! I would be completely at the mercy of any villager willing to take me in.
I parked the bike walked a bit down the road and found nothing. When I turned around to head back I was greeted by a not so friendly dog 10 meters ahead growling like Cujo ready to attack. Shit. Maybe I should queue up some Everytime I Die on my phone, blast it and run at the thing banging my helmet and screaming. I’m fairly certain I would have won that match. But Instead I called out to a group of Vietnamese who where outside their home close by and they dismissed the beast. Having thwarted the enemy I made my way to the homestay I HAD starred on the map. There I spoke with an Aussie and explained my situation. He said “Mate I can’t help you if you don’t have the name of your homestay.” I said “Well this is the name.” and he replied “Ya, that’s where you are.” But it’s not where I was suppose to be! I was panicking at this point.
Racking my brain for any clue I could think of I finally remembered… The Hanoi Rocks sticker! This guy clearly knew the area and since this was all arranged by Hanoi Rocks Hostel he must know of the place! He did in fact know exactly where I needed to be. We walked out to the balcony he pointed almost directly below us to a lit up house and said “That’s it right there”. So I wasn’t far off after all. I HAD marked the correct coordinates however I couldn’t mark the elevation. Again fuck you google maps. I say that jokingly— without google maps surely I would be dead.
I walked the motorbike down the steep hill, flipped the kickstand down, threw my shoes off and walked into the entire group sitting down for dinner. Just in time! I was so relieved and STARVING. I asked for a beer and three shots of homemade rice wine which tasted like pure ethanol and got me proper buzzed. A perfect end to a challenging amazing day!