Another One For The Record Books

By Jane | February 26, 2014

10,625 km so far.

Since today’s ride was to take us over the infamous Pha Din pass, where Heaven meets Earth, I was going to call this post “A Hellish Ride To Heaven”. But, as it turns out, nothing about the day was hellish. I might even say it was heavenly.

I’d definitely say it was another amazing ride which maybe even topped the stellar day we had on Monday.

Up And Out Early

Since we’ve been having trouble finding oatmeal here, and breakfast is always readily available in the form of 50¢ egg sandwiches and 10¢ donuts stuffed with sweet lentil paste (I know it sounds bad, but they’re really yummy), we’ve taken to grabbing breakfast in the market before setting off.

The central market is the best thing about Son La. It’s filled with colourful fruit and veg stalls, a handful of cooked food stalls selling the aforementioned sandwiches, donuts, and noodles, and is ringed by drink stands where you can get beer, soda, and a selection of snacks.

A great place to hang out.

I sent Stephen off through the market with the camera, and he charmed all the ladies selling their wares. They love to chat with him and show him what they’re selling, even if it’s obvious he won’t be buying any heads of cabbage or whole fish.

We bought a hand of bananas from one woman, and I only remark on this because it’s the first time we’ve bought fruit and not felt we were charged too much. We got about 20 tiny sweet bananas for $1.

It was only around 8:30am (this is very early for us!) when we left town. The weather is so warm today that we were just in t-shirts and shorts and already sweating.

There was a bit of a sudden climb out of town, which I wasn’t really expecting. I think I block out the bad parts of the elevation graph when I look at it, so I can convince myself it’s just an easy ride.

Views aren't long in coming when the day starts with a climb, near Son La.

Views aren’t long in coming when the day starts with a climb, near Son La.

Anyway, starting uphill on a full stomach with muscles not warmed up is not my favourite. Luckily, the downhill wasn’t too long in coming, and it lasted for most of the rest of the morning.

Home Sweet Home

We had many of the same gorgeous views as yesterday, so I controlled my urge to stop and take pictures quite so often. How many pictures of beautiful rice paddies and majestic valleys do you really need?

There were, once again, small villages and clusters of houses lining the road at regular intervals.

Most of the houses here are on stilts, made of giant logs acting as the vertical supports (ie. the stilts). The walls are hand hewn boards arranged vertically along the upper floor. In most of the houses there are pretty sizeable gaps between the boards. They have tiny windows, which are just a hole in the wall held together by a few crosspieces of bamboo. No glass in the windows, of course, hence the need for good mosquito nets.

Typical stilt house, near Son La.

Typical stilt house, near Son La.

A few of the older houses have tiled roofs, but almost all of the rest are corrugated fibreglass fitted snugly in place, unlike the siding. It must sound amazing during rainy season.

Tiled-roof house near Son La.

Tiled-roof house near Son La.

People with a little extra money might add glass to their windows. Or, if you’re really well off, your house is made of machine-hewn stained boards, which all fit together neatly and snugly. A few houses are even made of brick with an overlay of plaster, and the really posh ones are painted.

Very fancy house in The Annamites.

Very fancy house in The Annamites.

No matter what kind of house you have, you can probably be seen on your front porch, texting and making calls on your smartphone. I’m assuming these places don’t have WiFi, but who knows?

There is also the very modern problem of garbage, which appears in consistent piles along the route.

The Long Short Cut

Our maps indicated that we could get off the highway for a while today, making the impending climb slightly shorter with slightly less elevation gain. The trade-off was that the hill itself promised to have a kilometre long section of 32% grade. Probably unwisely, we decided to go for it.

We wound down a tiny roughly paved road that led off into a valley. Here, people were actually surprised to see us, and we were welcomed with friendly grins of surprise as we passed through. There is something magical about getting off of the road more travelled. Things seem more vibrant, more real, and even more beautiful. It feels special to be somewhere that we doubt many tourists and cycle tourists visit.

Unfortunately, after a few kilometres, we realised our short cut would involve 8km of bumpy dirt road. We would shy away from this in the best of circumstances, and with a substantial climb ahead, we decided to backtrack to the main route.

After we turned around, a gang of six boys on four bicycles started following us up the road, easily keeping up with us. We must have made quite a sight, since everyone along the road turned their heads to watch us go by, laughing at what they saw.

After a quick lunch in the Vietnamese version of a truck stop, it was time to go up.

Mad Dogs And Englishmen

I’m not going to lie and say the hill was easy, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting.

It’s hard work, but honestly, it was hard to worry about the pain in my legs when the views were so distracting. No matter how high or remote we got, there were always plenty of people along the road, living in their small houses, with their animals running around in the yard.

Spring has truly sprung here, and there are baby chicks, piglets, and tiny goats everywhere. Not only are they adorable, they are a constant reminder that we’ve been on the road for almost a year.

When we started in Italy, the baby animals were just being born, and the spring plants were pushing their heads up through the sand. Even though we’ve seen and done so much, it doesn’t seem possible that so much time has passed.

Of course, it was a darn sight colder in Italy than it is here.

We are also in coffee country, a fact which excited Stephen endlessly.

Our climb started around 1pm, just when the day was really beginning to bake. All the smart people (the Vietnamese), were hiding inside their dark houses, relaxing and keeping cool. The crazy people (us), were cycling up one of Vietnam’s legendary mountain passes. My brain soundtrack consisted of Mad Dogs And Englishmen and White People Crazy on constant rotation.

When I Get To Heaven, I Hope They Have Cell Reception

At the peak, where we had obviously reached Heaven, we were greeted with the sight of a huge cell tower and a tower of satellite dishes. Not pretty, but it means the mountain residents are connected with each other in a way that would have been unthinkable five or ten years ago.

I believe this is the Stairway To Heaven we've heard so much about.

I believe this is the Stairway To Heaven we’ve heard so much about.

After a quick stop in Heaven for a sugary drink (yes, they have Coca-Cola there) we explored a second “short cut” that we’d seen on the map. This one proved to be more successful. If you’re riding this way, I highly recommend taking a sharp right off the highway just down from the peak, onto the old highway 6.

The paving looks a little crappy, but it gets better, though it never really smooths out. And yes, you are immediately confronted by yet another (small) hill. But the extra effort is worth it, because instead of descending immediately into the valley, as the main highway does, this road winds along the crest of the mountain. The views are incomparable, and the area is even more remote.

We met three goat-herding boys who were too shy to have their pictures taken, and didn’t even know the custom of shouting hello. They may have been a bit mistrustful of us, but as we were riding away, one of them gave Stephen a huge smile and a wave.

Again, if you’re cycling this way, beware that the descent is a bit of a killer. It is sharp switchback after sharp switchback, almost all 10% grade, and bumpy rotten pavement. What with the risk of going over the cliffside on a hairpin turn or slamming into a pothole, I had to ride my brakes pretty hard the whole way down.

That's our downhill road, very steep and bumpy.

That’s our downhill road, very steep and bumpy.

Hands and arms were screaming by the time we reached the valley floor, but man, it was worth it.

Why Reach For Heaven, When You Could Come Here?

If heaven really is a place on earth, it might be the valley into which we emerged.

This could be heaven, just outside Tuan Giao.

This could be heaven, just outside Tuan Giao.

Better dressed than any movie set, it seemed to be the model for the perfect rural Vietnamese village.

Wooden houses lined the streets, and people, bicycles, scooters, and water buffalo ranged up and down along the side of the highway.

The lush green rice fields were a hive of activity as farmers prepare for another summer of hard work. We could hear women in the fields shouting and laughing with each other as they worked. A few far off in the fields spotted us and leaped out of their bent-over positions to shout and wave to us.

The women continue to be dressed in ankle-length black skirts, brightly coloured cap-sleeved t-shirts, and silk headscarves. They wear this to work in the boggy rice fields!

A place like this is so seemingly idyllic, that I envy the people who live here. Yes, they work hard, but if they are lucky enough to end up with a spouse they love, a supportive family, and enough food on the table, it must be a happy life.

One more note for cyclists: The Hong Ky guesthouse in Tuan Giao is great. By far the best one we’ve stayed at in Vietnam, and we’re paying the same 200k per night. If you need a rest day along your route, I’d recommend doing it here, not in Son La, where all the guesthouses we saw were pretty crappy specimens and the town itself is unremarkable.  

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Want to see the route map? View it on ride on Ride With GPS.

4 comments

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  3. Comment by Geoff L

    Geoff L Reply March 1, 2014 at 1:02 am

    What a stunning ride! Thank you for this terrific account, the fantastic photographs and the cute reminder about “mad dogs and Englishmen”!

    • Comment by Jane

      Jane March 3, 2014 at 1:56 am

      Thanks Geoff! It was as stunning ride. I figure we have two audiences on here: one set will understand the Mad Dogs And Englishmen reference the other will get White People Crazy.

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