Sapa Sanctuary

Posted by Jaime Dormer on


I invited several of my friends to come with me on a bike trip to see the sights of Vietnam, after spending some time in the southern parts of the country, we travelled north to Hanoi, we arrived in Hanoi at about 4.00am in the morning on the train from Hue (Central Vietnam, pronounced “way”), which I might add was a story in itself, but we did arrive safely despite being very tired, cranky, sore & hungry.  Anyway I had previously arranged to hire some motor bikes & a guide from a local motorbike business to take us for a 10 day ride up into the isolated northern mountainous regions of the country, to experience the fantastic scenery, local culture & cuisine, as you could probably appreciate you cannot carry much on a small 250cc trail bike, so each of us had a smaller bag in which we had to pack our gear into, and then strap it onto the bikes rear rack, which was done, Myself, being the photographer of the group, carry a handy cam camera, a small compac digital and a Nikon D300s with 18-200 lens on it, plus all of the chargers, cables, spare batteries, memory cards etc for each camera, this of course reduces much needed valuable room for your cloths, etc but I always seem to manage to get by with what I pack, I will say that the cameras, all three of them I carry on me, the video fits neatly into one of the side leg pockets of my cargo jeans, the compac in the other side leg pocket and the Nikon I hang around my neck, all day and often into the night.

Once packed, we were ready to go, and if you have ever ridden a bike in Vietnam you will know the meaning of organized chaos, there are just thousands of vehicles, pushbikes, motorbikes, trucks you name it, going in every direction, but somehow they seem to get to where they are going without to many bingles, but for us it was an experience.  Eventually we got out of Hanoi, and started heading north.

We rode through the fertile low areas just north of Hanoi, across many creeks & rivers, through the terraced rice paddies and up and down the mountains, on about the second night, we had the pleasure to stay at a village farmhouse that was setup to accommodate about 15-20 people, we arrived mid afternoon and was glad to have a rest, warn shower and a beer, there were five of us, and we felt right at home, then across the rice paddies we could see another group of bike riders coming towards us to also stay the night at the farm stay accommodation, which was great, we had a great evening swapping stories and having beers, they were from all over the world including the UK, USA & Australia to name a few, they were heading to Danang, which is where we had been about five days earlier, anyway the next morning we said our goodbye’s and left to go further north whilst they headed south.

After several days of riding we started to climb up into the high mountains, the roads got winder, and they also got narrower, in some cases you would come across landslides that had taken half the road away, disappearing into the valleys below, there where no safety fences on the sides of the roads, just straight down, thousands of feet in most cases, anyway we kept climbing deeper & further up the mountain ranges, At one on the places we stayed at we saw on the TV devastating floods in the Philippines from a typhoon that had hit it, and that it had tracked towards Danang where our other bike friends were going too, we could not understand the words but a picture is self explanatory, we found out later over emails that they were in the middle of the typhoon when it hit Denang, they were flooded, and had some great footage on YouTube.

Anyway back to us, we could see the weather getting worse where we were, heavy cloud building up, extremely humid, all of the signs of a pending storm forming and then it started raining, and I mean really raining & wind, it would have made any tropical island proud, the rain was that heavy, you could not see the road, visibility was reduced to about 10 meters I kid you not, we were kept very mindful of the landslides by our guide, and also about the shear drops, and of course the on-coming traffic, but we just had to keep going to reach our destination for the night, which was a place called Sapa, located at the top of the mountains about 6,000+ feet above sea level around 30 kilometers further on, does not sound far but on a good sunny day that would be at least an hour or more ride, but in this stuff who knows?

Even though we each had a plastic pancho type rain coat that we bought a few days earlier for about a dollar, we were soaking wet & very cold, but we eventually got there, to Sapa I mean, we arrived late in the afternoon, managed to get to the hotel and get showered and into some dry cloths, “SAPA SANCTUARY” at last we thought, this was the biggest town we had been to in a week, it even had hot showers and some food that we could recognize, like good old chips, and even a hamburger, admittedly it was made out of buffalo meat but it was great.  That night the rain just pelted down, it had to be the heaviest rain I have been in, it just poured and poured, the next morning it was still raining, we had breakfast, and discussed what would be our stratergy, would we keep going in the rain or would we wait it out, we were about to make the desicion to wait it out, then the rain eased and the sky cleared, beauty, lets go we all said, so we loaded up the bikes, fueled up and started heading out down the mountains towards the Chinese border at Lao Cai.

We got about 10 kilometers out of Sapa, and I could see this really strange fog /cloud coming up the valley at us, we were well above it, but it was coming straight up the valley towards us, in a wedge shape, you could see the rain starting underneath it and the trees getting knocked around with the wind, then just like before, down came the rain & wind, just as heavy as the day before, another day soaked to the skin, as it turned out, we were riding through the same Typhoon that had come across from the Philippines, and the eye had passed directly overhead of Sapa, a very hairy & memorable experience, but would not undo it.

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