Thursday, December 19, 2013

Ma Pi Leng Pass - one of Vietnam's most incredible roads

Day 8 - Tuesday, November 12
Distance - 55 kms = total for day ~ 2-3 hrs (Meo Vac - Dong Van only ~24 kms)
Trip Odometer =  502 km
Route - Meo Vac northwest on Hwy 4C to Dong Van (then day tour west from Dong Van).
Hotel - Thien Huong Motel - Dong Van (350,000d = ~$15)
Weather - Morning fog and cloud, and then the skies opened up.  Beautiful sunny skies followed by more cloud cover in the afternoon.

"Vietnam - tell us something we don't know... "

We woke up at our usual 6:30 am to hazy skies, overcast and fog.  We knew we had another shorter day ahead of us, so we milled about, watched more CNN and BBC and slowly formulated our rough plan for the day.  Within the hour, the hazy overcast quickly broke into blue skies and sunshine, a very welcomed sight.

We didn't want to leave the comforts of our amazing Hoa Cuong Hotel in Meo Vac (mind you - the bed was a typical Vietnamese 'firm'... pretty much like sleeping on a concrete platform with a few layers of cardboard for cushion, something to get used to).

Leaving Meo Vac - heading northwest along 4C

Once leaving Meo Vac - within a few kilometers we encountered a 'Y' in the road, one road heading up the side of the mountain and the other dropping into another valley below.  Both roads were about as wide as golf-cart-tracks and my GPS stated that we were to stay on the high-road.  A left it was and we started snaking up.

It was gorgeous, utterly breathtaking.  We passed a cyclist grunting up the steep slopes and pulled over shortly after for a photo-op.  Within a few minutes, up pedalled a bloke from Ireland, he too pulled over and we had a great chat.  I immediately told him I wasn't near the man he was, toughing these hills on a pedal bike.... I only had the crack of my throttle to sweat over, such tough work.

Team Ireland and Team Canada - (burly fit man to the left, lazy throttle cracker to the right).

A few minutes later we had a roadside party.  Two men and a woman from 'Saigon' (as they stated) pulled up on two bikes and they immediately started shooting photographs with large lensed cameras, mainly of us sitting there conversing.  The young woman wanted to know where we were all from and what we were doing there.  It was great, a random encounter party on the side of a Vietnamese hillside.  Turns out, the young woman 'Trang' was working with these two guys who shoot photos all over Vietnam for various publications.  She kept asking us what we thought of Vietnam, she spoke excellent english.

After our morning random-encounter-road-side, we all pushed on our individual ways to continue enjoying the spectacular day.  The steep gorges carved through the landscape were incredible.

There was very little traffic and this was undoubtedly one of my favourite days of riding.

>>> I wanted to try to get some video coverage of these incredible stretches of road so I put my iPhone on a mount and then strapped it to my backpack chest strap and hoped for the best.  The video is shaky but gives you an idea of how narrow and windy this road was. 

At the Ma Pi Leng Pass we met some interesting folks while on the viewing platform.  They were all there doing the same thing we were, enjoying the beautiful vistas and views.

I only took a picture of this young monk after he asked US to take our picture first.  I think we all gave a good 'thumbs-up' for the photos.

Traveling west from Ma Pi Leng Pass getting closer and closer to Dong Van Town.

We eventually made our way to Dong Van - Vietnam's northern most town.

As we arrived to town relatively early and we shopped around for a hotel.  The Lonely Planet suggested the Rocky Plateau Hotel - unfortunately the information was quite outdated as this place wasn't exactly what was stated.  My guess is the hotel has gone downhill over the years with little maintenance.  Their prices were high and the young woman at the front desk didn't speak any english.  She put me on the phone with a guy who barely spoke english and it was frustrating to organize to even look at a room.  (The LP also stated that Dong Van doesn't have a bank machine - which it did, I saw one across from the Rocky Plateau Hotel - although I didn't use it).  We decided to keep looking.

Just down the road, near the main intersection of town, we found our accommodation of choice.  It was a family-run place right in the middle of town called the Thien Huong Motel.  It was great, the lobby doubled as a huge shop and the family's living room, all in one.

Nha Nghi - Thien Huong Motel - Dong Van Town.

We unloaded our bikes, loaded our gear into our room and took off around the corner for lunch and then for a fun afternoon of riding around Dong Van.

This was one of Amanda's favourite lunches.  It was a fried-rice special with egg-on-top, complete with hot soup and fresh cucumber.  Delicious.

Cafe Pho Co building - a historic old trader's house, over 100 years old and fully restored.  I just had a quick look inside.

Seeing that we had the afternoon ahead of us, we decided to take a tour on unloaded bikes in and around Dong Van.

Amanda pulled over to shoot a quick video of me snaking and weaving along the roads and she quickly gained a posse of boys that were having a great time.  I found a school below where I too met some interesting characters.

While waiting way down the road for Amanda to load up and say a sad goodbye to all of her recently acquired young boyfriends, this interesting man walked up beside me with a large wooden log by his side.  I gestured at him if I could take a photo and he nodded and posed for the shot.  I then showed him the picture and we had a nice smile and laugh together.  He gestured at me that his skin looked the same as the log he was holding, all rough and weathered.  He appeared to be a hard working man with years of grit under his fingernails.  He had happy eyes and a similar demeanour.  I'm sure this mountain-guru had stories to tell, it was unfortunate I didn't get to hear any of them.

While on our afternoon outing from Dong Van, we kept seeing these loaded down scoots fly past us along the roads.  I'm not sure what they were transporting, but they were all extremely loaded down and as wide as small cars. Bikes of two or three kept rocketing past every now and then throughout the afternoon, all heading towards Dong Van.  As we were a stones throw from the northern borders of China, this could have been a remote hauling route from China, either that or goods coming into Dong Van from Ha Giang city 150 kms further to the south.

Smaller village west of Dong Van

'Bee Wine' was a very popular 'local-speciality' in these parts.  Bee hives dotted the hillsides and roadside stalls were selling random glass bottles of the stuff.

Views from our Hotel in Dong Van

Dong Van market.

That night, we had great success with ordering our evening meal.  This was largely in part on how we ordered, but I also think the cook instinctually knew what to bring us.  This was all agreed upon after I pointed at the dishes a neighbouring table was enjoying.  The meal was able to satisfy our cravings all-round especially with huge plate of greens as we had felt them lacking in our recent meals.  We had a plate of 'morning-glory' which was a fresh rooted green spinach of some sort.  Then, we had a plate of tofu mixed with chicken and another plate of cured pork served with an onion and garlic sauce.  We had our usual bowl of rice and some soy sauce if we desired.  A couple of Bia Ha Noi's aiding in washing it all down, it was an excellent meal.

Our parking for the night, right inside the Hotel lobby-store-front-desk-living-family room.

Next up:  Travelling south to Ha Giang city, the first crash, and a questionable Spa 'massage'...

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