Cycling to Son La, Vietnam –A Tremendous Ride

We test our strength riding through the Annamite Mountains towards Laos

This post is part of the story of our 19 months of cycle touring 16,000 km through 22 countries. If you want to know more about cycling to Son La, Vietnam through the Annamite Mountains, read on.

(Don’t miss: Our post covering everything you need to know before cycle touring Vietnam)

10,531 km so far

Today ranks as one of the best rides we’ve done on the trip. It helped that the first 60 km or so were virtually all downhill. But the easy ride was only a small part of the attraction.

(Don’t miss: Our post about everything you need to know before visiting Vietnam)

Villages And Vistas

With visibility up to 25 km, we finally got to see what we’ve been missing in the fog the last couple of days.

view outside Moc Chau in the mountains

Somewhere outside Moc Chau, in The Annamites.

The views, down the steep mountainside and into the expansive valley floor, were incredible.

Another glorious view while cycling to son la

Another glorious view, The Annamite Range.

I usually don’t like to stop on a downhill, but today I kept slamming on the brakes to photograph yet another glorious scene.

Rice fields in The Annamites.

Rice fields in The Annamites.

As soon as we left Moc Chau, the modern houses and cafes were gone, and all that was left were small farming communities. The houses are all stilt houses, with the family living upstairs, and the horses, pigs, and water buffalos populating the ground floor.

Speaking of horses, a new animal has started appearing on restaurant signs. Yup, you guessed it. Horse. Since we can’t read the signs, we are ever so grateful that most restaurants illustrate their offerings with gorgeous pictures of sleek racehorses. Yum.

cycling to son la through the annamites

Stopping to take a photo of the view near Moc Chau.

What People Wear in the Annamites

Some people in this region still wear their traditional ethnic clothing. It is mostly worn by adult women, but we saw men, boys, and girls dressed in the local style too.

At the start of the day, the local garb consisted of patterned woven skirts and matching tops or vests, usually with turquoise or orange as the main colour. Over each hill, the outfits changed slightly. By the end of the day, skirts were all black, long or knee-length, and usually in a velvety fabric.

Most women wear their hair in a high tight top-knot, usually with a colourful silky scarf wrapped around it. Women on scooters add a helmet to the top, balanced on the top of their hair, creating a Marge Simpson effect.

We’re pretty sure these helmets would do nothing to spare the cranium of these ladies, should an accident occur. We spent a little time today trying to devise a design of helmet that would actually protect their heads without ruining their up dos.

There is plenty of everyday western garb around too. It was odd to see one woman in her heavy woven skirt, and the next in tight jeans and white high heels, but that is the world we live in.

Man From The Sand

As we were zipping our way downhill, cycling to Son La, I was appreciating (as I am wont to do) the deep purplish brown colour of the earth, which formed a steep cliff to our right.

Suddenly, a man appeared at the side of the road. His skin and clothing were of the same colour as the dirt. To his back was a steep rock face, and I had not seen him coming down the road. It appeared for all the world as though he’d just emerged directly from the rock.

Later, without any prompting, Stephen said exactly the same thing.

Stephen’s note: I had actually said out loud, to myself, as I rode past him, “That man just walked out of the rocks.” I thought I might have hallucinated it.

We had the feeling that all of the houses and huts we could see today were only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to population around here.

There are myriad trails and small dirt roads leading up the sides of the mountains.

Dirt track leading off into the mountains near son la

Dirt track leading off into the mountains, The Annamites.

Rickety bamboo bridges dart off the main road at regular intervals, leading to small villages or twisty roads disappearing into the distance.

Bamboo bridge on the side of the road near Son La.

Bamboo bridge off the highway, near Moc Chau.

And then, there are dozens of paths so faint as to be almost invisible. These are the ones that lead straight up the rocky cliffs to the mountainside high above the road. If the man had not emerged from the rock itself, which he most certainly did, I’d say he’d just finished descending one of these paths from his home.


Rise And Climb – Cycling to Son La

After 60 km of easy riding with our eyes bugging out trying to take in all that we saw, it was time to ascend. I was a little nervous about the hill, since it was supposed to be almost a 1,000 m climb. After lunch we set off, and for a while the road remained practically flat, with just a slow rise to it. About 15 km in, the hill began in earnest.

garlic for sale on the roadside

Random photo of some garlic for sale, The Annamites.

It was steep.

It felt all the steeper because the cold cloudy days to which we’ve become accustomed had been replace by 28C and clear. The sun beat down into our helmets, and about 5 km in I thought my head might explode from the heat.

As luck would have it, I was listening to a Radiolab podcast as the worst of the worst began.

The podcast, Cut And Run, explored the reason that the Kalenjin people of Kenya dominate in the sport of running. They discuss several theories, but the one that sticks is about the pain barrier.

Apparently, athletes who have a higher tolerance for pain, perform better. Somehow, this little piece of knowledge, combined with a fantasy in which I was an elite athlete partaking in a gruelling event, helped me push through the pain of getting up the hill.

Despite this added motivation, I still needed to stop for a mini break on the hillside, where Stephen informed me that we should be at the top in one or two kilometres.

What? I thought we had 15 km to go!

Hurrah and hallelujah!

Even though the hill was much shorter than I’d expected, it was still a killer. We were overjoyed to see a little stall at the top selling cold drinks.

enjoying drinks at the top of the pass

Drink stall at the top of the pass, The Annamites.

We sat in the shade and gulped down some sugary goodness, failed to converse with the proprietor…

Stephen entertaining the drink stall owner, The Annamites.

Stephen entertaining the drink stall owner, The Annamites.

…watched him feed his water buffalo and tried out the hammock.

The rest of the way, another 50 km or so, was just about getting there – there being Son La. No special reason to stop in Son La, other than it’s the right distance between towns. As tired as we feel now, we’ll probably stay two nights.

Soundtrack: Fun Lovin’ Criminals, Come Find Yourself | Pavement, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain | NO, El Prado | Cake, Fashion Nugget | Radiolab podcast  

See the map of this route on Ride With GPS.

Go top
Share via