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Up the Mountain then Back Down

We awoke hungry  in our comfortable and roomy hotel room in Sa Pa. I guess the dinner of Bia Hoi and unborn chicken had not been quite enough for us. We headed out in search of Pho, and found and ate a fatty bowl of it with very little expenditure of time or money.

Now, escaping the Pho joint without letting everyone in a giant group of local Vietnamese men ride the Speed TRs and try on the Panama hats and sunglasses was a completely different story. It seemed that we spent easily double the amount of time spent on the entire Pho mission just navigating this little gauntlet. Finally, we were free to head out in search of coffee and more wheeling advice.

Both were quite easy to find at a coffee shop just down the road. Here in Sa Pa we were back in high tea country, so unfortunately the locals did not drink coffee as they had in Saigon and Hanoi. This made the black gold a little harder to find and more expensive than than it had been up to this point in Vietnam. As the result, this coffee shop was more of a tourist joint, and in it we met a Vietnamese-American woman, who told us of a certain waterfall, up in the mountains beyond and above Sa Pa. It would be a nice, easy, inclined ride, she explained, over her mocha-caramel-whipped-o-chino. Scott and I looked at each other. “Sounds great,” we agreed.

And we were off again, this time up and out of Sa Pa. And once again, with our departure from the city, the view opened up into a jaw-dropping vista of indescribable grandeur. As we grew farther and farther from the city of Sa Pa, the buildings that clung to the mountainside began to change, and the people who lived in them and worked in the land around us became more unique, less touched by the outside world.  The road simply got more and more beautiful, and the whole time we rode, we passed perhaps only one other vehicle. It was as though we had the mountain to ourselves.

We stopped at a particularly savage vista to take a few glam shots of us and the Speed TRs, when we were approached by a few young lads from the neighboring hamlets. One of them, presumably the leader, carried a small plastic bottle attached to his belt, in which he kept small snakes that he had caught and killed. On his finger he carried two small birds that, despite the fact that he waved them around , appeared to be permanently attached (live) to him. His crew were all younger, and were interested in, but wary of your humble correspondents. They came over to take a look at the camera when it was sitting on the grass photographing us.

We decided that these young lads might be, in fact, budding photographers and encouraged them to try out Scott’s Olympus, but they seemed nervous about the thing, and just getting them to touch it was quite a task.

Soon the leader of the gang began to give us the signal to get out, so we did.

We wheeled off the small road that we had taken out of Sa Pa and onto a large mountain road. Still traffic was very very light, but from time to time on this one we would pass motorcycles, and even the odd small truck. We were getting plenty hungry; our breakfast of Pho long turned into energy for cycling the elevation change, and just when we were starting to think about drastic maneuvers, a roadside fruit stand appeared on the horizon. We wheeled up to it and feasted on a kilogram or so of high country plums. These turned out to be some of the best plums I’d ever had in all my meandering life.

The scenery around us just never ceased to amaze, with a new type of farming taking hold. This consisted of large networks of rope and branches, hammered into the 45º pitch of the mountainside. In the safety of these networks, we saw people growing everything from corn to berries. As we came around the corner, we ran into a woman and her guide (a small girl) walking down the mountain from the waterfall that we were on our way to see. The woman turned out to be from Portland, Oregon, one of the wheeling capitals of the U.S. We talked wheeling for a bit, standing in the middle of the road. No cars came by during our conversation. And soon we warmly parted ways.

When we finally reached the waterfall, we were once again starving. There was a cluster of stands and restaurants around the entrance to the falls, but a price gouge was inevitable. We ate two lackluster and overpriced bowls of noodles at a nearby restaurant, and then bought a couple pieces of grilled purple yam from a woman at a roadside stand. The yam was tasty, and the noodles at least gave us new energy.

We looked at the falls from a distance, and at the cost of entrance from up close, and decided, as we often do: more wheeling.

<<pic of us near the falls>>

We kept climbing, seeking solace in the knowledge that unlike yesterday’s wheel, this one would terminate with a luxurious downhill. Up and up we went, making our way around a vast section of road that curved in on itself as it clung to the edge of a steep ravine.  It reminded me so much of a wheel Scott and I had taken at Colorado National Monument during our pre-AsiaWheeling tour of the U.S., that I found myself, for perhaps the first time on the trip, getting a little sentimental about AmericaWheeling.

And with that we reached the crest of the mountain road, the highest point of our trip to date. It was a glorious view, and positioned in the midst of appropriately post-apocalyptic bits of crumbling settlement and roadside advertising.

And then we had the downhill. Ah, to fly downhill. All that potential energy… more than you could ever use. We whipped down the mountain at the speed the road was built to be driven at. And with the ease of movement, the scenery around us seemed to come alive all the more. As if the parts of my mind that had been preoccupied with humping our way up the mountain could now be free to focus on the pure enjoyment of our enchanting surroundings.

We rolled into Haba, once again with the same thing on our minds: where to find more Pho.  Settling down for a few snacks at the same roadside stand as the night before, we encountered a Frenchman executing a “Tour du Monde,” who took particular interest in the WikiReader.


  1. Rebecca | July 2nd, 2010 | 4:34 pm

    Hi Woody–beautiful photos. I would probably start crying if I were there taking in those views. Thank you for posting!

  2. Mark/Dad | July 4th, 2010 | 10:25 am

    The yams were beautiful as well as tasty!

    Something went awry with the pictures and description of the falls which you might fix before the details are lost to memory!

  3. Christi Johnson | July 5th, 2010 | 8:56 am

    As usual, Love the writing – you can be there with you as you are so good at describing. The pics are great too! Children are always a delight. Interesting about the permanently attached birds.

  4. Woody | July 5th, 2010 | 9:27 am

    @ Mark/Dad
    We’ll get to work on fixing that.

    @ Rebecca
    Stop it you two. If you flatter us too much, it will just go to our heads.

  5. JILL SCHNEIDER | July 7th, 2010 | 8:25 am

    The map was interesting as I noticed the references to Hmong in several places. At our community gardens, we have approximately 35 Hmong garden families, and their garden support structures and fences they erect remind me of the ones in your photos. I imagine the land they came from looks a lot like the terraced hillsides on your ride. Great postings!

  6. Woody | July 8th, 2010 | 3:29 pm

    @ Jill Schneider

    Hey Jill! That’s so interesting. I would not be surprised at all if they are using the same farming styles that we saw on this wheel.

    Thanks for reading!

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