Keen to escape the “North Fake” shops of Hanoi and the tribeswomen with killer sales techniques in the former French hill station of Sapa, we rented some wheels and set out to discover the real Vietnam on a three-day motorbike loop.
Yes, we went all “Top Gear”-esque in Vietnam (if you haven't seen the episode, get a glimpse of it here). We might not have travelled the full length of Vietnam, like the Top Gear boys, but our first adventure - the 325km Sapa to Sin Ho loop – was a great little find on an expat blog. In fact, half the fun we had in Vietnam was down to the guy behind Vietnam Coracle. If you're heading that way and want to get off the beaten track, away from the tourists - this is the way to do it.
The cost? Just 5 dollars a day for the bike. The experience - priceless!
Day 1: Sapa to Lai Chao, 75km
...Day 1 saw us take on Vietnam's highest mountain road – the Tram Ton Pass – at 1,900m. As we wound our way up through the Fansipan mountain range, we were rewarded with stunning views of mist-shrouded alpine scenery and lush green cascading rice terraces.
Our destination for the day was Lai Chao – an unusual kind of place, boasting huge multi-lane roads but no traffic, and depressingly grey governmental buildings adorned in communist flags that looked completely out of proportion to the rest of the town.
There wasn't a Westerner in sight, which can be both a good and a bad thing. You all know that we like a bit of an adventure, but when there's no English menu, your Vietnamese is minimal, and when nobody seems to be eating at the cafés (so no chance of the point-and-order method!), it can be tricky knowing how and what to order. We weren't keen on tucking into a dog or horse meat meal, and those foetal duck eggs that we'd heard about weren't tempting those tastebuds either!
Back at our family-run guesthouse, a chicken was clucking under our bedroom window. But alas... the poor chuck didn't cluck much longer. Guess chicken was on the menu that night.
Day 2: Lai Chau to Sin Ho, 120km
There were a few hairy moments where the road was in poor condition...but my “rasender Roland” took it all in his stride :-)
We met some friendly locals…
Passed through tiny villages where corn was drying on the roadside…
And water buffalo cooled themselves in the roadside water channels…
By the time we arrived in the tiny mountain village of Sin Ho, we were in a different world to the tourist bustle of Sapa. Perhaps it's how Sapa used to be? It was a funny little place. A bit scruffy, with pigs and horses roaming the streets, but how we adored the cool mountain air compared to the humidity of the lowlands. Excited village children ran alongside us shouting their "hellos" - everyone knew the Westerners were in town - and women wearing traditional dress weighed live ducks and chickens to sell on the roadside.
It was time to hit the sack – this biking lark isn't half tiring! But there was just time for a snack. As we sat munching on our Bánh Mì, wrapped in a school English test paper, the couple next to us were taking great delight in slurping out their foetal duck eggs. We really couldn't see their appeal.
Day 3: Sin Ho to Sapa, 130km
There was more happening in the tiny mountain village of Sin Ho at 7am the next morning than there was at 7pm the night before. Speakers in the streets were blaring out tinny national anthem-type music and announcements, the football was in full swing, and the streets were abuzz. Mind you, it was Sunday – and that meant the all-important Sunday market.
Unlike the touristy markets in Sapa, where ethnic minority women peddle tourist trinkets, Sin Ho is still an authentic Vietnamese experience. In Sin Ho, we were the tourist attraction. Cue some surprised and somewhat aghast looks!
Men, women and children arrived on their scooters or on foot from the surrounding villages, many in the most amazing colourful traditional dress. The Sunday market is obviously a big deal for the surrounding ethnic minority people to buy their weekly supplies. There's no tourist junk in sight. Instead, rolls of chicken wire, kitchen utensils, fresh produce (not to mention those eggs) were on everyone's shopping lists. Oh, and if you weren't carrying a live chicken under your arm, then you were somewhat out of place. There were plenty of chickens in baskets waiting to be sold, along with a couple of puppies – we weren't sure what their fate would be.
Seeing so many ethnic minority women in traditional dress, and knowing this was all part and parcel of their daily life, was simply stunning. From large black turbans and multi-coloured checked headdresses to pleated colourful skirts and red wool interwoven in the women's hair, it was an incredible sight, and one that we feel privileged to have experienced.
While we didn't want to intrude too much or disrespect the local people, we managed to discreetly capture some pictures. And this lovely woman seemed happy to pose for us.
Of course, the locals are quick to spot a sales opportunity, but I politely declined the full tribal outfit that one woman was eager to sell me. I just couldn't see myself wearing it down Heidelberg Hauptstraße.
It was tough leaving the otherworldly Sin Ho behind us, but the road back to Sapa provided many more unforgettable sights…
...albeit with the odd landslide to negotiate:
We stopped off for a bowl of steaming Pho Bo at a roadside café in Lai Chao, our appetite slightly knocked when what we can only assume were cow intestines were removed from the huge saucepan of stock. The café owner's son spoke some English and, as we left, said, "I wish you happy."
After three amazing days discovering a real gem of an area in Vietnam, we were, indeed, very happy.