After almost 2 weeks in Vietnam we’ve finally found our feet again. Its good to be cycling and despite the challenges we’re starting to get a sense of the place. Everywhere is busy here with the industry of people. The roadsides and hard-shoulders are used to sun dry everything and prepare goods for market. Timbers, wood veneers, rice, maize, slaughtered bullocks, bricks, beetle nuts, cinnamon bark, vanilla pods, fruits and hay all ‘litter’ the roadside reducing the small two lane road to effectively one. Scooters slow to pass us carrying chickens, dogs, pigs, ducks, eggs, bags of garlic, herbs and vegetables. The roads themselves all seem to be in a constant state of repair with piles of rock, gravel and sand with bags of concrete heaped in readiness for diggers, lorries and workmen to cast storm drains and patch potholes. There is much for us to see and to navigate and few ‘Zen’ like moments drifting along, as in the emptiness of Australia’s outback, as there is simply so much going on.
From Hanoi we’d thought 4 days would be good enough to reach the highland town of Sa Pa but with the big climbs its taken 5. We’ve been acclimatising, in every sense of the word, to the heat, food, steep roads and language. The extremely hot weather has been the hardest and we’ve had to adapt by getting up early to try and avoid it. The rice harvest is still being brought in from the paddy fields which we cross in the valleys between the hills. The terraces are busy with people gathering by hand their crop and, at the roadsides, primitive looking threshing machines are fed the dried rice stalks to finally capture the grains. The fields are a wonder as they step so rhythmically and chequered across the land, bright green where the crop has yet to be harvested and yellow where cleared with wondering buffaloes allowed to roam in the emptied fields.
The flat valleys we drop into from the surrounding hillsides are sometimes huge. They form big plains of arable land surrounded by mountains with fast flowing and rocky river beds which we steadily pedal across enjoying the change of scenery and the momentary ‘flatness’ before the next climb to the valley above. The hills are steep and as we’ve progressed northward become much more mountainous. They are often badly deforested with all the big timbered trees gone, leaving burnt or newly greened slopes. We find ourselves climbing up and down their sides for large parts of the day, passing small villages of timber stilted houses populated by mainly tribal people wearing traditional embroidered dresses and bright scarfs, carrying wicker shoulder bags and farming equipment. They too drive scooters, have smart phones and mix their dress with jeans and t-shirts. Somehow there seems to be a comfortable mix between the old and new with their traditional houses all having satellite dishes.
Sa Pa is a tourist town both for the Vietnamese and visiting foreigners and seems to be everywhere reconstructing itself. Every other building seems to be a construction site and accordingly everything is filthy from the dust. Where we’d intended to stay was surrounded by a massive new construction site and the adjacent roads thick with the dirt from lorries. We’ve headed elsewhere and are really enjoying the delights of finding simple local markets, western food and a momentary rest from cycling. Today we climbed 1.5km in elevation to finally reach here and have certainly earned our bed and dinner for the night. We’ll explore the town tomorrow.