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Day 126 – No Fear (Motorbiking Tram Ton Pass)

July 7, 2010

Dateline: Mountain roads to the north of Sapa, Vietnam – Wednesday, July 7, 2010

I came back to Vietnam in part to spend a few days touring the north of the country on a motorcycle. The idea of tooling around mountain roads, stopping to take in grand vistas, and meeting local people, all with the help of a local motorcycle guide, sounded like something I shouldn’t miss.

Unfortunately, I missed it. Turns out organized tours only go out on certain dates. That’s so people can band up and ride out as a group to cut costs. All the guides that I checked in Hanoi were leaving well after I’d be leaving Hanoi. I could have booked a personal guide, but that would have cost a small fortune per day. Instead, I opted for my little Sapa sojourn. I figured once I got here on the train and did my trek, I could rent a bike and go around on my own. Today, I tested my theory.

First, I rented a bike. I gave up my dream of riding around on a cruiser and opted for a motorbike (i.e. scooter) instead. I’d seen the condition of the roads on the ride back to Sapa after yesterday’s trek. If I was going to drop a bike on accident (possible), I wanted it to be a light, cheap one instead of an expensive, big one.

Next up, choosing the route. I opted to go to Thac Bac, a set of falls, and to Tram Ton Pass, both northwest of Sapa proper. The city of Lao Chai was further down the adjacent valley. Depending on the roads and my pace, I might be able to make it there, as well (I didn’t).

I got a late start because I’d been up late the night before watching the Netherlands-Uruguay game. I filled up the tank ($3) of my rented manual motorbike ($5) and hit the open road.

The scenery north of town is not nearly as dramatic as the scenery to the south. I think that’s because as you get higher, it gets harder to farm. Even though there are fields, there seem to be fewer villages. This area is also home to Vietnam’s (and Indochina’s) highest peak. It’s not the ideal place to be an agrarian.

I decided not to stop at the falls after discovering the place was surrounded by souvenir shops and featured a hike up the mountain. I’d had my fill of hawking and hiking the past couple days. I was here to ride.

I continued up and over Tram Ton Pass, Vietnam’s highest. The climates on either side are very different. Sapa, to the south, is Vietnam’s coldest area. To the north, the temperature can be much hotter, more like the rest of the country. The difference between the two, plus the altitude, means there’s a lot of wind.

On this trip I’ve scuba’d with sharks, almost been swept into the ocean depths by deep water current, free solo’d over ocean water with holey shoes, and eaten some stomach turning things. At no point, however, was I more scared than I was today crossing Tram Ton Pass.

That’s because, on a teeny little motorbike with skinny little wheels, you are a leaf on the wind. The pass wind whips around like Elaine Bennis attached to the tail of a giant, mutant cat.

It’s downright scary. I’d be pushed three feet to the left, then three feet to the right, dancing with the edge of the cliff. Should I slow down? Or maybe speed up to increase bike stability and cut through the wind? In the end, I let my hundreds of hours of playing F-Zero’s Death Wind level be my guide—I stayed loose and countered the wind when necessary. See that, Mom? Video games saved my life.

Once I crossed over to the other side (of the pass), the wind calmed and the weather warmed nicely. The road, however, compensated by becoming more treacherous. Sections of road were dirt, then gravel, then mud, then all three at once. Some sections washed out by the nightly rain. Mountain waterfalls overran the manmade channels and washed over the road. Construction was everywhere. Backhoes dug through dirt, blocking the whole road.

Drivers had to honk at the backhoe driver until he stopped for a moment whereupon vehicles could pass beneath the work arm.

Trucks roared up and down the mountain along with transit buses. They’d blast their horns at bikers, presumably to drown out the screams should the big vehicle connect.

I loved it. I wanted more. I also wanted a bike with better suspension and bigger tires, but whatever. We can’t have it all, can we?

When the road leveled out I came across naked kids playing in the streams that ran by the road. Another group swam and lounged in a calmer part of the river. Laundry lay out on a cobblestone wall to dry. These people weren’t here courting tourists. They were just living their lives.

I never made it to Lao Chai. It was getting late and I had to turn back. I suspected that the weather would pick up as it neared sunset and I didn’t want to get caught in the rain. Despite my planning, I didn’t escape the weather. As I raced back up the mountain, it started to lightly rain.

On the return, I heard an explosion. The workers had decided to dynamite a portion of the mountain. This slowed my progress. A truck and I waited for men to clear the road. I nearly took a spill trying to navigate the hastily cleared rubble. Only a manly yelp kept me on the bike and helped me maintain my dignity as I rode through the waiting workers.

The rain continued all the way back up to the pass. On the upside, the drizzle kept the dust down. On the downside, riding through it felt like someone was constantly throwing small rocks in my face.

The wind wasn’t nearly as heavy in the other direction. It was at my back now. I’d found something even better than paradise: paradise experienced on the back of a bike.

GALLERY: Click through to see more shots of scenery, things that might kill you on the road, and the plumes of a gravel processing facility inexplicably nestled in the crook of a mountain curve.


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