Pulling out of our lovely Lai Chau hotel, we weren’t exactly sure what our last day on the motorbikes would bring us. We knew that we were heading straight into Sapa, one of the most touristy places in Vietnam and had heard reports of constant barrages of sales pitches and overcharging tourists. Since our last few days had taken us through tiny, out of the way villages where no one had attempted to sell a darn thing much less take advantage of us, the whole scene seemed unappealing, but at least we knew that we’d have some beautiful scenery along the way.
Scenery is just what we found and within a few miles, high limestone peaks surrounded us on every side. It was to be our shortest day yet on the bikes, which was a good thing since we were making extremely slow time as we stopped every two minutes on the bikes to take photos of the dramatic landscape. It was nice to know we had all day to cover a pretty short route and could enjoy the last of our time in the northern mountains of Vietnam.
Even as we weaved over the top of the insanely tall mountains, we could see the ethnic minority tribes at the tops of the ridgelines plowing, weeding, and working the land. I don’t know how long these groups of people must spend every day just hiking to their fields, much less actually working in them, but these people possess survival skills and a tenacity to get things done that I’ve never before witnessed. My “long days” at work in an air conditioned building suddenly seem like a cake walk by comparison.
The day was heating up fast, so just before we pulled into touristy Sapa, we pulled over, peeled off all our protective gear, and chatted in the grass. We decided to make a quick pass through Sapa and then decide how long we wanted to spend there. Even as we sat on the side of the road, a few other terrified foreigners passed by slowly on scooters making a noble attempt at climbing the steep road, clearly on a day trip from Sapa.
We made our way into town and instantly realized what a hot spot it really was. At least half of the people in town seemed to be western visitors and huge numbers of minority villagers meandered through them selling their crafts and trinkets. Unlike the shy villagers we’d met all along their way, these villagers had mastered the art of selling to western visitors and used great English to deliver their sales pitches. Our drive through town revealed scores of western guesthouses, Italian restaurants and tons of shops selling high end, western trekking gear. As we’d feared, we lasted all of about ten minutes in town before feeling overwhelmed by the constant barrage of villagers selling things and tourists taking their pictures. Instead of sticking around, we hopped on the bikes, found a quiet dirt track that led us along the ridge overlooking the expanse of terraced fields, and got busy enjoying the scenery.
At one point we headed right off the main road into the fields where we could see a bunch of people trekking in the distance. We were glad we’d decided not to spend the bulk of our time here, but enjoyed taking pictures of the incredible terraced fields. which blanketed the entire mountainside. Once we’d had enough, we hit the road for the town of Lao Cai where we were to turn our bikes in at the train platform.
At one point in the planning of our trip, I had considered looking for a bicycle rental in Lao Cai and riding it up to Sapa and through the villages. As we cruised 35 kilometers straight down a steep downhill, I was glad we hadn’t gone with that option! It would have been a miserable ride up that steep hill on rusty rented bikes!
Lao Cai was more of an honest to goodness city than the guidebook had made it sound like and we were soon pretty lost. Our confused circling took us right next to the Chinese border crossing, although menacing border guards were enough to convince us that taking a picture might not be a great idea. Eventually though, we tracked the station down. Once we arrived, we realized we might have a bit of trouble locating the guy that we was supposed to help us turn in our bikes on the train. I felt a little like we had felt in Slovenia trying to find the missing car rental location, and I hoped that we would hand the bikes off to the right guy and not just someone who wanted a new scooter!
Gratefully, Mr. Dinh eventually tracked us down (I can’t imagine that spotting two foreigners on rented bikes was all that tough!) and we handed off our trusty scooters. I was reluctant to see them go!
Truth be told, I’d had some real doubts about traveling by motorbike in Vietnam. We are wildly inexperienced when it comes to riding anything but a bicycle and everyone we talked to warned us of insane traffic, rugged terrain, and advised us not to try it. Watching the Vietnam edition of Top Gear was one of the funniest things we’ve seen in months, but that too left us a little bit worried about what we were undertaking. (If you haven’t watched this episode, you should look it up on Netflix. Even if you’ve never seen Top Gear in your life I guarantee you’ll laugh).
Ultimately, these scooters unlocked a magical corner of Vietnam for us that I don’t think we would have been able to see in any other way. The steep, rocky terrain of the region would have made it terribly difficult to cover by bicycle due to the long distances between towns. The scooters enabled us to move safely with traffic instead of clinging to impossibly narrow shoulders as we pedaled up hills. Getting off the bus routes let us see places that rarely see tourists. Motorbikes are the primary form of transportation in Vietnam and riding along next to the locals using their preferred form of transport let us enjoy the pulse of local living while still fitting into our limited time constraint. Although not for the faint of heart, traveling by motorbikes is an awesome way to fall in love with Vietnam.