I decided to write a traditional trip report because, for all my searching on the web, I could not find any overviews of this route, and certainly nothing recent. One of the only things I had to go off of was a motorcycle blog from 10 years ago, and it made me very nervous. In fact, this is the reason why we took the night train out of Hanoi instead of biking it. I think now, having biked even just a week in Asia, I wouldn't hesitate to do that route, but as a newbie, there were too many unknowns, and I chickened out.
Day 1: (Lao Cai to Sapa)
We arrived in Lao Cai at 9:30am, having taken the overnight train from Hanoi. As everyone else herded onto their waiting vans and buses for the 30-minute ride up the mountain, we collected our bicycles from the railway car where they'd spent the night with the motorbikes, and went for breakfast. We were amazed at how cheap our pho was, after having paid Hanoi tourist prices for the past week. We asked our restauranteur the way out of town, and he helpfully showed us on his smartphone. Once we were on the main road, the route was clearly signposted and marked every kilometer. The traffic consisted of motorbikes, 12-seater vans carrying tourists, and the occassional lorry full of gravel or pigs. All of them honked to let us know they were coming, and then politely went around us. The road started out as gently rolling, but soon started to climb, climb, climb, climb. By noon, we'd made it to about the halfway point, and hadn't really seen a spot to eat for the last 10 km. Needless to say, I was very happy to come across a woman cooking corn on the cob in a large cauldron over some glowing embers, and a few kilometers further on, a restaurant!
The restaurant was built into a hillside beside a waterfall, with steps cut into the rock that lead you up to the second storey eating area, partially hidden in the tree canopy. They had chickens running everywhere, a squirrel in a makeshift cage, and no menu. One member of the family knew three words of English: chicken, rice, and vegetables, so we ordered chicken, rice and vegetables. Little did we know we'd ordered the whole chicken! A lot of extra food, and a hefty bill later, we departed, a little bit wiser, and practicing the phrase "Bao nieu tien?" (How much?).
The road climbed and climbed. At one point, it got so steep we seriously considered trying to take the bus. But take heart! It doesn't last! We rolled into Sapa as nighttime was falling, and were immediately pounced upon by hoteliers wondering if we needed a place to spend the night. As we had already booked a place, we declined, and they helpfully pointed the way to our hotel.
(Note: we took the night train from Hanoi, but we did speak with a cyclist who did the whole route by bicycle. He said the new highway Hanoi-Lao Cai is closed to cyclists, but consequently, the old road is very nice and quiet, and he enjoyed the ride.)
Day 2: Sapa to Tam Duong
This was my favourite day. The climb to the top of the Tam Trong pass is not that bad - you're most of the way there already! And you can stop at two waterfallls along the way, both of which have eating options (although prepare to bargain for your bbq!). The road up to the second waterfall is very, very steep, but then you're very nearly at the top of the pass, and after passing another row of food stall shacks, you go down, down, down, down, down, the entire way through beautiful mountains to Tam Duong. The road is much quieter, and the scenery is magnificient!
The last few kilometers into Tam Duong have construction, but nothing unmanageable. When you arrive in town, the road suddenly becomes six lanes wide, with a median, street lights, and the whole bit. It's also entirely deserted. The real town is off to your left - you'll notice that everyone is making a left hand turn down a small side street. This road is full of open front shops and restaurants and people selling vegetables, meat and fruit, but unlike in Sapa, no one will try to beckon to you. Around a bend, about halfway down, you'll come to a hotel (khach san), the only one in town, I believe. It's on top of a resturant that can easily seat 50, and around back, they have a banquet hall that can seat 250 more. If you ask to use the restaurant WC, you'll be shown through the kitchen, which is immense, and has its own cages housing chickens, rabbits, and two mostly de-quilled porcupines. Who needs large-scale refrigeration if your food is still alive?
Day 3: Tam Duong to Lai Chau
The distance is not far, but it's a good idea to start early, especially if the forecast is good. This was our first day biking in the sun, and it was unbelievably hot. We started late because Michael, who was battling a cold, had hardly slept a wink, but by 11am, the sun was beating down on us from a clear blue sky, and we were regretting not rising at 5am, like the rest of the town. We stopped for a break any time we saw some shade. The road climbed gently out of Tam Duong, and then we hit the mountain pass, and started doing switchbacks. By the afternoon, clouds had started to gather, and we were able to wait out the sunny periods, and bike only when the sun was hidden behind them. We stopped for a drink at a small house/bar/karaoke/cell phone shop which had a pool table out front. This was the third pool table we'd seen out front since starting this morning - billiards seem to be a popular pastime with the rural Vietnamese.
As luck would have it, our pool-side rest stop was at the top of the pass. We rounded the corner and started heading downhill. 10km of twisty, turny bliss! And sore hands from so much braking. Arriving in Lai Chau, the street once again becomes monstrously wide. We passed a number of guest houses (nha nghi) first coming into town, but continued on past the hospital, and the bank towers, before turning left up another quiet six lane road, and picking a place there. For dinner, we walked around the lake in the center of town to the glitzy side, with neon Karaoke signs and a radio tower that looked like a replica Tour Eiffel. There we ordered a pancake-type thing, stuffed with meat and tiny shrimps, and proceeded to eat it entirely the wrong way until someone kindly showed us that you're supposed to wrap it in rice paper with cilantro and eat it like a spring roll. Of course!
Day 4: Lai Chau to Pa So (Phong Tho)
This was our most ridiculous day. We got up early (or at least earlier), and were on the road by 8am. After leaving town, we had a short climb, followed by a long flat along a ridge, and then a longer downhill into Paso. We arrived at our hotel before 11am. We decided to call it a day regardless, which turned out to be the right decision, as it rained steadily all afternoon and into the evening. A book-reading, internet-surfing, napping sort of day.
A note about names and hotels: As far as I can tell, the town of Pa So has been re-named Phong Tho. Leaving Lai Chau, the kilometer markers count down to Phong Tho (which was the name on my map), but then just before you arrive, they start referring to Pa So instead. Same place, I think, just a different name.
In Pa So, there is a hotel called the Lan Anh II, claiming to be the only hotel serving Westerners in the district. We stayed, even though it was twice the price we usually paid, and though the hotel itself was beautiful, I found the upkeep wanting. The white canopy over our bed clearly had dead bugs in it, the curtains were not well-attached to their rings, and were home to spiders and slug-like things, I mixed some ice tea in a waterbottle, and in the morning it was ant-infested, and when we lay down on the bed to sleep at night, a distinct click-click-clicking could be heard coming from the corner. Upon closer examination, the wood of the corner bedpost and the window frame beside it were discovered to be completely deterioated - termites! I moved our pillows to the foot of the bed instead. There is another guest house in town that from the outside looked very decent - I would stay there instead.
Day 5: Pa So to Chieng Chan
At the time of writing (October 2014), this section of road was under construction. 15 km out of Pa So, we hit dirt, and gravel, and large rocks, and more dirt, and puddles, and mud. Average speed :10km/hr, 15 on the smoother bits, 4 or 5km/hr in the mud. It continued this way for a good 30km, until just before the #128 splits off towards Sin Ho, and then the road re-appeared. We had planned to make it all the way to Muong Lay, 67 km away, but when we finally staggered into a small place called Chieng Chan, and saw that there was a guest house (there's at least three), we called it quits about 20km short of our destination.
Where did the road go?
Note: According to a Dutch couple we met, it is possible to put your bike on the bus and skip this section. A Belgian pair of cyclists opted instead for the higher road, that takes you up into the mountains to Sin Ho, and brings you back down again at Lai Chau, missing Pa So entirely. They sent us a message from Sin Ho, and said they were enjoying themselves immensely.
Day 6: Chieng Chan to Muong Lay
Exhausted from our travails and from the incessant barking of the 15 dogs belonging to our guesthouse proprietor, we decided just to complete the previous day's route, and go a paltry 20km into Muong Lay. But twenty km turned into 30km because the town is so stretched out, it's hard to know when you have actually arrived. When we got to a section that looked like the center, we went up and down the main streets on both sides of the bridge, trying to find a guesthouse or hotel that did not have karaoke on the fourth floor and was not on the busy road. No luck, but we managed to stay on the second floor, and the pounding beat was fairly faint.
The best part of Muong Lay ended up being dinner. We went out fairly late, and were a bit concerned because the town seemed shut up. But a young guy in the street saw us wandering aimlessly, figured out from our miming that we wanted to eat, and beckoned us to follow him. We did, a bit doubtfully, (we'd had a dubious experience a few hours earlier at lunch), but he took us to his friend's restaurant, a small place, half eatery, half living quarters, hidden back around a corner. His friend was thrilled to have us, showed us a plate of tofu and a tomato, some eggs, and lifted the lid of his rice cooker. Bao nieu tien? 100,000 VND, great! We knew what we were eating and we knew the price, we really couldn't ask for more, but our host outdid himself, emptying the kitchen, and bringing us new things to try. We got our own personal stack of pho noodle sheets and ginger dipping sauce, which we had no idea what to do with, but he showed us that you roll them (of course!), and then dip. Through hand gestures, we understood that they were meant for later, for us to eat before we went to bed. We were so pleased with our spread that we asked him to take a picture. He took about 10, arranging the dishes on the table attractively and trying to get the best lighting conditions for our iphone camera. And then, when we thought the meal was over, cookies and watermelon appeared to finish it off.
Day 7: Muong Lay to Muong Cha
A little ways out of Muong Lay, we met a Belgian living in Ho Chi Minh coming the other direction who told us the road climbs to 800 m, drops to 700m, and then climbs to 1000m before descending to the town. We have to take his word for it on the elevations because we have nothing that tells us our denivlee, but that's pretty much exactly what we did. Muong Cha is a one-street town with a small but interesting market, and a sky-blue guest house at the river bridge.
Day 8: Muong Cha to Dien Bien Phu
We had been told this section was flat, and we were a bit disappointed. It starts out flat-ish, along the river, but then you have a least two good climbs up and down again. After the last climb, you will start to see locals on bicycles, carrying the most ingeniously balanced piles of sticks, and that will be the sign - it's flat from here on out to Dien Bien Phu! (no way would the locals bike up those hills! Are you crazy? Take a motorbike!) Arriving in DBP, you'll have the airport on your right along one of these wide roads (it's the road to take you to the Lao border, if you're headed that way). You'll come to a major T intersection, turn left into town. The first right after the bridge is the street with the most guest houses, but there are lots of options.