- Ride length: 1,300 km
- Difficulty: Moderate
Day 1: Hanoi - Cuc Phuong, ~150 km, ~5 hours. (L, D)
Heading out of Hanoi to the southwest, we pass through picturesque limestone karst regions. We ride between the karst and through lush paddies down to Cuc Phuong National Park. On our approach to the park (the first ever national park in Vietnam), we pass through a rice-growing area inhabited largely by families previously resettled from within the park's boundaries. The park, standing on limestone karst, which marks the end of a chain extending from Laos, rises out of the landscape ominously. We continue through deep jungle to the centre of the park where we can enjoy the quite ambience of the park and stay in wooden bungalows in the centre of the park. Overnight in Cuc Phuong National Park.
Day 2: Cuc Phuong - Mai Chau, ~190 km, ~7 hours. (B, L, D)
In the morning, time permitting, we visit the park's impressive primate centre before heading out into karst country populated by Muong people in traditional villages. Then we take on a small jungle access road though the top of the park, all the way to Cam Thuy. Following the wide Ma river up to the Lao border region, we climb through some spectacular mountain scenery before descending into the beautiful Mai Chau valley. This is the territory of the Thai, Vietnam's most prolific ethnic minority. Mai Chau's tranquil valley setting, engaging White Thai inhabitants, wonderful food and superb rice wine make it a very relaxing stop. Here we stay with friends in a traditional Thai-style stilt house. Overnight in Mai Chau.
Day 3: Mai Chau - Phu Yen, ~170 km, ~6 hours. (B, L, D)
In the morning we embark on a road built by the French army which drops down to the Black River Reservoir. The 50-km route (the old French road) has plenty of challenging surface and is very remote. Then we hit the tarmac again and make a great decent to the banks of the reservoir and a ferry crossing. Once across we follow the banks of the reservoir past village all relocated before the flooding of the valley. On easy sealed road we approach the mountain settlement of Phu Yen, set in the middle of a vast valley floor of paddy fields. Overnight in Phu Yen.
Day 4: Phu Yen - Son La, ~180 km, ~6 hours. (B, L, D)
In the morning we head up steeply to the lofty township of Bac Yen before dropping sharply back down to the Black River. Then we enter an area heavily populated by Black Thai people before climbing relentlessly to the top of the Chen Pass. Then we drop down into the sugar cane growing areas around Son La, passing through some impressive limestone karst before arriving in Son La. Overnight in Son La.
Day 5: Son La - Muong Lay, ~200 km, ~8 hours. (B, L, D)
Heading out northwest from Son La, the road crosses a series of mountain passes and areas of busy Black Thai activity. Children walk to school, kids tend buffaloes, women plant rice seedlings and men pull the buffalo. Then we come to the beginning of the very long and steep Pha Din pass. Picnic at the top with vast views of the surrounding mountains, then down the other side on very steep sealed road. The road passes isolated communities of H'mong and Thai people, whose small villages settle the bans of dark green rivers and on the steep slopes of the mountains. We then climb up the high Sa Tong pass before dropping sharply into the deep Lai Chau valley. Overnight in Muong Lay (formerly Lai Chau).
Day 6: Muong Lay - Pa So, ~150 km, ~5 hours. (B, L, D)
Lai Chau town lies on the floor of a very steep valley near the convergence of three river systems. Crossing a large suspension bridge over the Black river we head north along the eastern banks of the Nam Na river. Along this quiet road H'mong, Dao, Thai and Tay live in small villages backed up to the forest. When only a short distance from the Chinese frontier, the road climbs steeply up to the Sin Ho plateau, with expansive views back towards the border. Sin Ho town has a lively market and is surrounded by sharp outcrops of karst. We continue out along the top of the mountain range with views stretching out on either side past Dao and Hmong villages before dropping sharply into the quiet settlement of Pa So by the banks of the Nam Na river. Overnight in Pa So.
Day 7: Pa So - Sapa, ~120 km, ~4 hours. (B, L, D)
If the days are right then we can visit one of three busy hill tribe markets as we head towards the main Fansipan Mountain range. There is also the option for a very challenging back route which takes us through several river crossings. The massive mountain range dominates the road while we make a splendid climb up from Binh Lu to the top of the highest road pass in Vietnam (Tram Ton Pass). Crossing into Lao Cai Province at over 2,000 m the views looks out over the main range for miles and miles, before we descend to the mountainous Sa Pa valley. Overnight in Sapa.
Day 8: Sapa - Lao Cai, ~40 km, ~1.5 hours. (B, L, D)
Depending on the group's mood, we can either take it easy in Sa Pa town, or make excursions back to the top of the highest pass in Vietnam, or down deep into the amazing Sapa valley. All options are dominated by the crest of the enormous Fansipan mountain range that looms over 2,000 metres above us. The entire region is populated by H'mong, Giay, Tay and Dao people. In the afternoon we head back down to Lao Cai, where we catch the overnight train back to Hanoi, arriving in Hanoi at 6 am the next morning. Overnight on the train.
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