Writing and Riding: Lao Cai, Vietnam to Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam

Ride, Forest, ride…

One day it started raining, and it didn’t quit for four months. We been through every kind of rain there is. Little bitty stingin’ rain… and big ol’ fat rain. Rain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath. Shoot, it even rained at night… – Forest Gump

Around 9 a.m., we departed Lao Cai under a sky so thick with rain and clouds it was as if someone had thrown a thick, gray blanket over the whole scene to warm it up. Over breakfast, Anne read us that quote from Forest Gump. As we sipped thick, strong Vietnamese coffee, beef with noodles and banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches), the rain poured down on the street as from a bucket.

Nonetheless, we had a 4200+ foot climb ahead of us before we reached Sa Pa. And the thing about bike touring is that nobody can get you there but you. And so we went — up, up and up, into the clouds, then stayed in the clouds.

Welp, no sunlight at the end of this tunnel…

Funny enough, people the world round descend on Sa Pa and the surrounding areas to soak in the natural beauty of the impossibly steep, green hills and magnificent, cascading waterfalls. We got soaked all right, but we only snagged a glimpse here and there of the mountains and the impossible relief between their green, snaggly peaks to the gushing river below, muddy and pregnant with rainwater.

By the time we arrived in Sa Pa like popsicles with legs, it was only 3:30 but it felt like 10 p.m. Hot showers and dry clothes lifted our spirits but the electric blankets in the guesthouse probably saved our cold, miserable lives. Once we got feeling back in our fingers and toes, we ventured out again in the pouring rain to find food in the nearby night market. The night market was cold and damp so we wandered back towards the lights of town. As we settled in a bright restaurant just off the square, preparing to gorge on hot pot (a boiling pot of broth and vegetables on a burner which one adds raw meat, tofu, leafy greens and lastly noodles to), the electricity went out.

Generators fired up and between the four of us, we left not one straggling noodle or chicken neck behind.

We woke the next morning to the heavy footsteps of steady rain on the roof and the light, happy steps of Lisa joining us via overnight train from Hanoi and bus up to Sa Pa. Yay!! And then, we were five πŸ™‚

After spending quality time putting Wanda (her bike) together, packing up our (sort of dry) crap and exchanging dismayed glances at each other and the unimproved rain situation, we headed out.

Rain, rain go away…

We had around 500 meters (1500 feet) more to climb to the top of Fansipan pass, the highest pass in Vietnam. Again, we quickly gained cloud status and couldn’t see much at all except the water rushing by on the road, in the gutters or nearby waterfalls. On the other side, the clouds hung low but not low enough to hide a gargantuan waterfall cascading across the valley from cloud to ground.

Time for the apocalypse gear…

The road twisted along the steep hillsides. Time to descend for about 23 kilometers (15 miles). Which would have been fantastic except for the wind, which somehow made it all the way from Antarctica to middle-of-nowhere Vietnam. It joined hands with the rain to create a miserable situation; by the time we reached the intersection just before the hamlet of Tam Duong, we were positively polar.

Also, maybe a quarter through the epic descent, my brakes — eaten alive by wet roads and road goo — turned into some sort of Vietnamese rice cracker unsuitable for braking. In other words, my brake pads were further gone than our hopes for a racism free future, thanks to Donald Trump. At one point, I used my foot to skid to a frantic stop next to Tyler, who adjusted my sorry brakes enough to get me down to the intersection where, over cups of cafe sua (Vietnamese coffee), we decided to throw in the very wet towel and stay in Tam Duong.

Yesterday, we rode in wet conditions again over a 500 meter (1500 foot), lush pass to Lai Chau to catch a bus to Dien Bien Phu.

Although “catching a bus” sounds too benign; no, we were crammed like spring rolls in a shoebox on a dark, winding road for 5 plus hours with 25 other strangers on a humid, smelly bus with seats for about 15. One tiny Vietnamese girl wearing a face mask puked at least three times and the little, scary bags went out the window by my head. Aside from the driver, there was one other dude in charge (wearing track pants), who we called the “fixer.”

The gathering crowd of onlookers at the bus station, per usual.

He moved people around like jigsaw puzzles, talked loudly on his cell phone and crammed a huge bag of rice under me, then a jug of oil so big I had nowhere to put my feet. They hung out in front of the doorway unless someone needed off, in which case I held them against my chest and watched the chaos ensue. Meanwhile, a constant soundtrack of cheesy Vietnamese pop music so loud a deaf person could’ve heard it pumped through the tiny bus, accompanied by the corresponding music video playing on a large screen above the driver’s head.

When we disembarked at 10:30 at night, none of us could decide if riding in the rain, soaking cold and miserable or riding on that bus was worse…

Today, we are hooched up in Dien Bien Phu for a much-needed rest day. Lisa’s bike Wanda needs some love and we all needed a day off a soaking wet bike. We also had to perform stench control: our laundry is dangling off every hanger and corner, trying frantically to beat the humidity and actually dry. Meanwhile, the clouds are still hanging about like curious Vietnamese children when the bike parade (all five of us) rolls through town, but the rain has ceased. Tomorrow, the weather improves more and we have a long 100 km (60 mile) day with more climbing and we’ll cross the border into Laos…

Note: On the next blog, the rest day in Dien Bien Phu because right now we are going to go stuff our faces with inexpensive, awesome Vietnamese food. Another note: there might be mistakes, due to limited time and too much Tiger beer. πŸ™‚

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