I have been lucky. I have been blessed to have travelled quite a lot around South East Asia–being able to take the sleeper trains in Thailand, surround myself with kids with tarantulas hanging on their chest in Cambodia or stuffing myself with the best noodles and spring rolls in Vietnam. In those travels in South east Asia, I can say that I was able to experience these unique cultures and immerse myself with the people and the way they live. But my last trip in Vietnam went deeper and farther than that. It wasn’t just about the destination, but rather the connection. I lost a loved one but gained a stronger self.
Just before we welcomed 2013, my special friends, Gthird, Char and Levi started on a not-so-crazy idea—to bike from Hanoi to Sa Pa. Sa Pa is in northwest Vietnam, it’s the town capital of Sa Pa district. The goal was to bike 466.5km in a week and a half. That would be around 8 riding days since we planned some full-day rest stops along the way.
We arrived in Hanoi just before New Year’s day. Our research told us that it would be really chilly, but it seemed like we were all too arrogant and thought that it would be no feat. Wrong! We were immediately challenged by the strong wind chills the moment we stepped out of the airport. What were we thinking? That this would just be like Baguio? But at least we had sufficient clothing layers that morning. A little over 30km which is mostly just the main highway from the airport, and we finally got to Hanoi. We spent two nights in Hanoi, supplying our trip with the necessaries, eating Pho Ga and fantastic rice dishes here and there. We were also advised the Sa Pa would be wintery, and suddenly I heard Ned Stark’s voice saying “Winter is coming!”
The best lunch meal in the world.
We arrived in the town of Son Tay on Day 1 just before lunch time. Originally we planned to spend the night here but later realized that it was too short and we could save some days by pushing towards the town of Thanh Son. The team decided to have our lunch break here instead. We found the town market and had the best lunch meal of our lives. Aside from having a scrumptious meal as usual, it was very cheap (Php40 per head),with unlimited rice and “free flowing” ulam (it was not really free, it just felt that way as they never really measure their servings)
At Thanh Son, we were greeted by these women selling fried sweet potatoes, corn and bananas, kind of their maruja version. Day 1 was relatively flat with just some minor rolling areas on the last 10km approaching Thanh Son. We’re feeling strong.
The world is not flat, but you are.
Beginning the ride on the 2nd day was hard. What made it difficult was having to pedal on a freezing weather. We had to start with layers of clothing, and even covering up our whole face. We’d start the ride shivering.
Day 2 started to show the country side of Vietnam. The streets were less busy and the roads were already featuring gentle slopes. For the whole duration of this trip, none of us got any flat tire, except for Levi who experienced it more than, I don’t know, 100 times? But those moments of having a flat were treated with fellow feeling as we get to use that time to rest.
Vietnamese women don’t get fat.
We’ve all been guilty of scrutinizing the women of Hanoi (men as well, but sorry, the women stood out). They all look so charming and dainty and they’re all petite. I’d secretly watch how they move, the way they eat, the way they dress up, and I’d be completely in awe. They eat and serve all these gratifying dishes and yet none of them shows any signs of eating carbs at all. And the answer to that mystery I plagued on myself is GREEN(s). In every meal, they’d eat a gallon-like serving of raw veggies and they’d take it like water. Veggies are their “pulutan” as well. It was weird seeing them drinking vodka or their “lambanog” while eating veggies. There’s a lot of healthy goodness going on in their system.
Lunch stops were always thrilling to us, because one, it meant we could rest and two, the noodles, unlimited rice and my favorite tofu dish (Dau sot ca Chua) would be waiting for us. One town Char and I would not forget is Than Uyen (Day 5 of our ride). While eating, a group of drunk men offered us some shots of lambanog. As I’ve said it is very common for them to take lambanog shots with their meals, even as early as lunch. They were very friendly and as a courtesy we took some shots. But then the shots did not stop coming, they kept on gesturing for us to have some more, and we tried our best to refuse and gave some weird sign language that we still have a lot to pedal and we could not take more but they were very persistent. In other words, I got drunk on that lunch stop. I left the eatery with a red face and a wobbly head. Thankfully nothing bad happened and we all reached our destination for the day.
Going to our main and final destination needed a lot of psyching up. First, it entails around 35 km of non-stop uphill, and second is the frightening temperature drop as we pedal up to Sa Pa. The long uphill can sound intimidating at first, but I have realized and confirmed that whoever it was who build the roads of Vietnam, was a very friendly person. The elevation does not exceed 10%. Whatever that means, I just know that the uphill courses we bike in Manila are more than 30%. Imagine the uphill from UP main library to Econ, that’s how most of the elevation in Vietnam feels like, it was nothing like Maarat, so bring it on! We later realized that it was not really the long uphill that should concern us but rather the chill factor and the low visibility. Once again, I felt like this was the road leading to Mordor, and somewhere, Saruman would show up. What worried us was the fast vehicles approaching on the other side that might not see us. Levi and I had to fix our blinkers and use our headlamps as blinking headlights. Sa Pa is probably like our Sagada, and I’m certain that it was very scenic, if only we could see through the thick fog.
We came across a cycling couple who were probably touring from China as we can see from their fully loaded panniers. They we’re all covered up, signaling that it was very cold in Sa Pa. It’s startling to see other bicycle tourist even if you only exchange silent hellos and good byes, regardless of the nationality, you feel like you already understand each other, whereas other people–the regular tourist–would say “Why don’t you just ditch the bike, and take a bus or train?”.
On the highest peak of this climb, we slowly saw two ladies waving on a small makeshift shelter. This was perfect timing as we ran out of water and my stomach was beginning to act up on me. We were hungry, it was lunch time already, and were still 15km away from Sa Pa. The place looked like the bus stops in Polis going to Sagada. Surprisingly one of the ladies spoke really good English and listens to a lot of Katy Perry, and she offered us to sit near their grill to warm ourselves. She knew what we just needed. They were selling this suman-type of snack, only this was not wrapped in our regular banana leaves. The sticky rice was being grilled inside the bamboo, and once it’s ready, they’d crack the bamboo and we’d have a smoky suman dipped in crushed peanuts, not brown sugar like how we’d usually do it. It was very strange but it tasted like heaven. Another bizarre observation was how they would grill eggs. I’m not sure of the process, but you’d end up with a wooden-tasting boiled-egg texture. I thought this could be done in one of our climbs back home.
As Levi and I were getting comfortable near the grill, eating suman, the English-speaking lady told us that I was beautiful, correction, she said “You are VERY VERY beautiful!” And so I made a decision, at that exact moment, that I would go back to Vietnam and start a celebrity career. I’m apparently not just beautiful, but VERY VERY beautiful there. (haha)
Alas! The last 15km going to Sa Pa, the end of the uphill. One would think that this was rewarding. What we didn’t recognize was the deadly wind chill from our fast descent. It was fatal. The chill trickled through my hands, despite of wearing 2 layers of gloves. My face had frost, I could feel my lips cracking, I told myself I’d rather have another uphill than this. It was too damn cold, I almost thought my hands and feet would fall off.
I have no words to describe the chill I felt when we finally arrived the town of Sa Pa, I wanted to throw myself in a big bowl of Pho Ga. Levi and I found a nice lunch place with heater and I pleased myself with delightful spring rolls. With my first bite of this godlike dish, I gently understood that this was the end of the road. We’re in our destination.
You get to ponder a lot while on the saddle. You can be numb to the slopes, to the uphill and downhill turns of your bike, but your saddle takes you to a state of mind you can’t get by taking the shorter route—a motorized vehicle. But of course, this is my personal take, I’m sure there is a different bliss on a motorized road trip that I would not be able to comprehend. A friend of mine said that the best way to fully immerse yourself in a journey is on foot, and the second best way would be on 2 (non-motorized) wheels. On my saddle, I saw their culture, and I’ve connected with the people. On our bikes, we got to see the towns that we’re away from the battling tourist destinations. We were visitors, not tourists. If I were given the chance to see the world, go around wherever, even with a huge budget, I’d still choose to take my “wheels” with me and wander off with my saddle in a heartbeat.
* Thank you Levi for letting me share this with you and taking the road less travelled.
* To G3 and Char, may we have more saddle time together.
* Photos: Levi & G3