My mountain bike tour to Bac Ha in northern Vietnam

I had done my research before sign-ing up for a four day and three night cycling tour in Lao Cai province with Lotussia Travel. My friends thought I was mad, cycling around one of the most mountains parts of northern Vietnam. But, the trip is well planned, so you’re never on your own. But I didn’t tell my friends that – I liked to think they pictured me huff-ing and puffing on my father’s rickety old Peugeot up and down the hills under a blazing hot sun.

However, not even riders in the Tour de France go solo – everyone needs a team, and a car, and a medic! My friend and I meet our team from Lotussia Travel at lao Cai station after taking the overnight train from Hanoi.

First things first, we head for a big hearty breakfast. With a long day of rid-ing we need to “feed the engine”. Afterwards, we drive to Hai Phong town, 20km from Lao Cai railways station, where we will set off on two wheels.

Our destination from there is Coc Ly, a cycle of 18km or so. The land-scapes are stunning with rolling mountain ranges, wild forests and the yellow Chay River slowly meandering through the valleys below. We stop at Coc Ly market and it’s bustling with hill tribes who come from all over the area to buy or sell goods, or simply eat, drink and have fun.

Here you can buy handicrafts or simply hang out and people watch as members of flowers H’mong, Phu La and dao Tuyen hill tribes wander past in colourful costumes. The atmosphere is lively and everyone is smiling. Nearby, I see a photography studio and a dentist’s clinic filled with boys and girls – signs of the times we live in.

After an hour exploring the market, we cycle to the nearby village of Sa Koun Ho inhabited by both members of flower h’mong and Black Dao eth-nic minorities. Next we embark on a motor – boat cruise along the Chay river. This is exciting boat cruise winding us through breathtaking, out – of – this – world – scenery where the mountains grow out of the water, presenting us with hidden mysteries, including beautiful caves and grottos. There’s an added sense of poignancy as we travel around as I am informed that the market and the area around will be submerged by a manmade lake created for Coc Ly hydroelectricity plain in future.

We disembark at Trung Do village which is home to members of Tay hill tribe. We are picked up by car and then transferred to a local restaurant for lunch. Before you start to accuse us of not cycling very much on our so – calls cycling tour, we hop back into the sad-dle after lunch, and this time we’re going up a hill! Our destination is Bac ha town. The road from Coc Ly to Bac Ha is in good shape but the uphill segment is tough going. But we push on, inspired by our awe- inspiring surroundings and the thought of dinner!

We eat at a Tay family’s house and after a day of cycling, we devour our dinner. There is nothing more delicious on earth than o hot meal for o hungry soul! Grilled chicken and purple sticky- rice, stir- fried bamboo shoot with buffalo meat, and boiled wild vegetables with a wonderful dipping sause – everything hits the spot.

That night we fall asleep quickly on a mat in the corner of the stilt house after being provided with pillows, a thin blanket and a mosquito net. Not even the grunting of the local buffalos can disturb our sleep!

After breakfast, Lotussia Travel transfers us by car to Si Ma Cai. Upon arrival we start cycling upstream along the banks of the Chay river. The sky above Si ma Cai is clear and blue. With a cool breeze on my face I take a deep breath and bask in the glory of the seemingly endless mountain ranges around.

On the road I can see the roof- tops of hamlets down below in the green and yellow valleys and the terraced fields in harvest  season. The landscape is the most beautiful I have seen on my journey so far. Every now and then a young flower Mong woman appears with a beautiful smile that further lights up this bucolic paradise.

Si Ma Cai is not as frequented as Bac Ha or Sa pa, since it is nestled at the far a road near the border with China, but its just 40 kilometres from Bac Ha, and worth the trip.

The town is quiet and beautiful and the people here have a simple daily life. The streets and the market are rather deserted except on Sundays when the market drawn a crowd of Mong, La Chi, Phu La and Nung ethnic minorities in colourful costumes from the surrounding area.

After Si Ma Cai, we cycle to Me village and stop at the village bridge. We cross the river and start the most challenging ride yet – 19km uphill to Pha Long town, where we will have lunch (always a powerful motivating force in my mind). Along the road, we pass more breathtaking mountain peaks and quaint villages. Located 1,200 meters above sea level, Pha Long is a sleeping beauty in a thick green forest shrouded by white mist – it’s truly a fairtale setting. After lunch, the cycle is easier as we go downhill for another 19km. We arrive at Muong Khuong in late afternoon and check into a local guest house for the night. The guest house in an isolated town in the back of beyond but it is very clean and comfortable. There’s plenty of hot water, too; perfect to soak our tired bones.

The next morning we do our last hard slog – 13km to Cao Son market where we spend about an hour visiting the market, which is much smaller than Coc Ly or bac Ha market, but is very charming with a backdrop of pine trees forests and pretty villages.

Flowers H’mong, Tu Di, Tay, and Giay ethnic minorities come here to buy or sell local products. A stall run by flowers H’mong flogs corn wine and as guests we are treated to some exuber-ant local hospitality! After a tipple or two, head back towards Lao Cai where we will board the train for Ha Noi.

All in all, it’s a wonderful way to see the country, and an unforgettable tour that will live long in the memory. And don’t be afraid! Even if you’re not Lance Armstrong, there is plenty of assistance to make sure you get to the finishing line.

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