Wednesday, September 24, 2008

NW Vietnam, and Hanoi

Well this is it...I'm leaving on a Jet Plane tomorrow for San Francisco. My last two weeks in Vietnam have been awesome but I'm definitely ready to get home....but before any of that I would like to update on what I've been up to the past few weeks.

I rolled into Dien Bien Phu near the northern Laos border and took a rest day to check out the War Museum. The town is known as the last stand for the colonial French and after they were defeated in 1954 France withdrew from it's colonies in Indochina. Martin Windrow claimed Dien Bien Phu was "the first time that a non-European colonial independence movement had evolved through all the stages from guerrilla bands to a conventionally organized and equipped army able to defeat a modern Western occupier in pitched battle."

The Vietnamese used bicycles during the war to transport food and supplies to the soldiers. After riding around with a loaded bike for 3 months I felt like I could relate with this guy...that is until I read the card that said they carried up to 300 kilos. That's a hell of a lot of weight for a bike and I'm still wondering if that's a typo.

After looking at maps and photos in the museum it was cool to know that I was riding the same stretches of road they had used during the war. I tried to imagine how crazy it must have been 55 years ago.

I seemed to have a love-hate relationship with Vietnamese during my time here. Some moments like this one were just incredible. These kids rode with me for about 15km through the mountains on my first day leaving Dien Bien Phu. It was awesome to have some companions on the road after being solo for so long...we didn't need to say anything but only smile when we came to a climb or fun downhill descent...yeah, amazing cultural experience...On the other hand I've had more people to try to rip me off (even for bananas) than any country I've visited on the trip...but for the most part the highs far outweigh the just learn to be on gaurd.

My pictures on the road in NW Vietnam never seemed to turn out as well as Laos...there always seemed to be a little more haze. This one wasn't too bad though on my second day riding along a river valley.

Can you tell the difference between Laos Ian above and Vietnam Ian below...

That's right...I finally got rid of the beard I had since Cambodia (but I didn't let the street barber touch my hair). You'll also notice that I learned to put a piece of banana between the butter milk cookies for a roadside snack...INCREDIBLE!!!...oh, yeah and I also ditched my helmet (who needs that discomfort anyway)

My first two days leaving Dien Bien Phu I felt amazing. I managed over 100kms both days through mountain roads and surprised myself with how good of shape I was in. However, the end of my second day was a tough 20km climb with 10 degree slopes after I had already gone over 80km. Views like this (which the picture doesn't really justify) inspired me to keep on climbing.

Made in Vietnam the Choco Pies were my reward after a long day...Delicious marshmellow chocolate cakes (only about $2 for a dozen)

Another reason I loved the Vietnamese was that they just showed more interest in me and my bike than any other country. These 12 or so guys watched me get ready on what would be my last day of riding.

The goal of my whole trip was to reach the Mountain town of Sapa. There were times early in my trip I debated in my head whether to try to climb this road or take another route to Hanoi...It turned out it really wasn't as a hard as I thought it would be but I had almost 3 months of conditioning. On the way up I didn't want the ride to end...I knew this was pretty much the end of the cycling and started thinking about all the places me and the Philippine Stud (that's what I started calling my me crazy but you get lonely on the road and I liked thinking of my bike as a horse) had been. This is a picture looking back at the mountain road to Sapa.

Me, the Philippine Stud, a Choco Pie in my mouth, and a helmet on my head (just kidding about not needing the helmet. Safety first kids) at Tram Ton pass (1900m elv, highest road pass in Vietnam)...We had made it. I became quite attached to that bike but had been planning to sell it from the beginning. In Sapa I got a good deal for it and said my goodbyes...It was hard :(

After arriving in Sapa I decided I would attempt to climb mount Fansipan (3143 m, 10,300ft). I met an Austrian couple Stephan and Gadriela who were also looking to climb the mountain and we teamed up to get a good rate on a guide/porter.

It was a two day climb so our first night we stayed in a small shack at 2800m and our guide Chu fixed us an amazing dinner and then made us some chopsticks from the bamboo outside...sweet...It was a challenging hike but for me the hardest part was the sleeping the night in shack. As you can imagine I didn't have my warmest clothes after packing light for hot weather the past couple months...basically I froze my ass off.

Then next day made the long night all worth it. We got extremely lucky with very clear skies and views as we made our way to the top. All the pictures I had seen of the summit had people shrouded in clouds...

Like I said we got lucky. Here I am at the top of Fansipan, the highest point in Indochina (Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam).

My man Chu taking a rest at the top

Back in Sapa I spent time roaming the streets and visiting with Hmong Hilltribe women like these. I got to see lots of different Hilltribes on the road but the thing I liked about Sapa was that these women were able to speak pretty good english since it's a touristy town and they make their living selling products. I had heard from other travellers they were pushy but I found them quite friendly (maybe because I bought stuff from them) and willing and able to have a conversation.

After a day in Sapa to recover from the hike I took the night train from nearby Lai Cai to Hanoi. I've been here for the past 4 days and have spent my time walking the streets, visiting museums, eating some good local food, and yes, even shopping for special people back home.

Here's a pic from Hoa Lo prison museum that housed Vietnamese when the French were in power and American pilots, including John McCain, during the American-Vietnam war.

This was a good time...Guys are always asking if you want a motorbike or cyclo ride around the city. After not being able to bike for a few days I was eager to pedal and asked this cyclo driver if I could give him a ride. He accepted...I cruised around for 5 minutes...then he felt like I should pay him so I gave 2000 Dong

I visited the Museum of Ethnology which was really good and helped me get a grasp on various hilltribes I had seen before and their way of life. This is a shot of some water puppets at the museum and later that night I watched a performance in the city.

American Plane at the war museum...

Chaotic traffic jam at night...

For some reason I've really enjoyed Hanoi and I don't really like big cities. I realize I've been fairly brief with my description of things (as usual)...but I've got to go pack my bags because tomorrow I'm going to America! See you soon.