Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Classic "Melissa" Tales

So I think I've hit a bit of bad luck,...Maybe you could say I’m on a bad streak….only I can’t seem to get too flustered or upset and I still have a smile on my face.

It all started a week ago when I lost my great merino wool sports bra off the back of my bike.  It was drying, but I hadn’t secured it properly.  If I had my choice, I would have much rather lost a shirt than a sports bra.  Do you know how hard a sports bra is to come by here in Vietnam?  It took me a week to find something that would work, far from what any westerner would consider a sports bra, but I think it will do the trick!

My underwear was that is advertised "50 countries, 2 years, 1 pair of underwear" What they didn't say was don't put it on a space heater to dry!  Should have known better....
Two nights in Sapa, I had more undergarment problems.  I underestimated the power of my space heater.  I wanted to make sure my underwear was completely dry before packing up, so I put it on the space heater for a few minutes….Five minutes later they had melted in several different places. You better believe I'm still wearing them!  My sewing kit is all prepred in case the last thread breaks, beats underwear shopping in Vietnam!

Where is my road?

Yesterday I had a horrendous day with my route on Google maps.  The route looked so straight forward, but nothing about the actual terrain was properly represented on the map. I followed my Google map directions and all of a sudden the road went down a big hill and right into a lake!  How could this be?  I pulled out my GPS and looked again at the map.  There was no lake, nor river to be seen, but my little blue dot was still on a road and it told me to continue straight.  I couldn’t believe there wasn’t even a tiny blue dot on my map to represent this lake, nothing, just the road QL 279. 
No lake there, just road 279

Luckily there was a dock with several long tail boats waiting for people like me who came down this road and had the same unexpected surprise.  Right away a boat driver preyed on me and picked up my bike and put it on the boat.  He said it was a 20 kilometer ride and took an hour.  At this point I didn’t feel like back tracking, so I gave in and took the ferry.  The boat driver probably thought I was crazy because I laughed to myself the entire ride.  I had passed on the boat ride at Ba Be park, but now I was getting my own private tour of a lake and it was gorgeous!  The hour ride was more like 20 minutes and about 5 kilometers. He left me off on the other side.  To my surprise there was a small paved road that went up from the lake.  I pulled out my GPS and it still showed me pedaling down a road, which I was about to do! 

My beautiful lake tour on a private boat

Trying out all forms of trasport with the bike
However, 5 kilometers later the road turned to a red dirt path, with all sorts of construction.  I was the only person on the road besides the construction workers.  Google was a little anxious putting this road on the map. The road wasn’t flat by any means, so it made it even more challenging.  I’ve been in similar situations on my trip, I can handle a bit of adventure and unpredrictability.  However, this morning, I was set on making it to the small town of Ta Hoa, about 30 kilometers away for my breakfast stop.  At this point, I was 15 kilometers into my ride with no town of any means in sight and my stomach was growling ferociously.  I had eaten all my emergency food and was gulping down the water, hoping it would satisfy the hunger.  Thirty kilometers came after a good 3 hours and a lot of hard work and the town I was so intent on finding was nothing more than ten little houses clustered together.  One was a typical roadside store that had some soft drinks and chips, so I called that breakfast!  The village ladies sat and starred as I plowed through two bags of chips. non-stop.

I want to see the feature on Google maps that rates the road quality, please!!!
Although my Google maps eventually located me correctly, I was in a completely remote area of Northwestern Vietnam with some of the most difficult terrain I had encountered yet.  I’ve done a lot of climbing lately, but this route topped it off.  Of course the views that came along with it were spectacular, so I couldn’t really complain. I found myself in a National Park that didn’t show up in any guide book.  There were huge rocks like the kind in Halong bay, only they shot up from the ground rather than the water.  In the background there were again green alpine mountains, and the road took me over the mountains and through every single valley that was populated with a small village of about 10 houses, many beautifully built on stilts.  I also followed another enormous lake with gorgeous mountains alongside.  The heat was oppressive, around 28C, but no humidity to speak of, it was more dry on this side of Sapa. I was in total awe of the scenery which lasted like this for about 70 kilometers.  I didn’t encounter a single town with a restaurant, which makes for a long day riding your bike.  

Gorgeous scenry once again

Typical village houses
At kilometer 75 I found a hotel and a decent size town, but since it was only 3pm, I decided to take my chances and continue riding.  Are you surprised?  Wrong choice!  The road went off into a valley and then straight up a pass climbing for about 20 kilometers. On the kilometer marks there was a town advertised 35 kilometers away and I thought if I could just keep a steady pace, I would arrive before dark, and find a hotel.  The scenery was amazing, but unfortunately my mind was preoccupied with arriving.   
Another lake that didn't even show up on the map

I pedaled in the total darkness completely exhausted, until I arrived at the town, but there was no hotel.  I asked someone for a Nha Nghi and they said 7.  I asked another person to double check, and he also said 7.  Seven kilometers with my head lamp on a small rural road was doable, so I kept riding.  Of course the road was in awful condition, full of pot holes and big rocks, a challenge to see with a head lamp.  I had to ride slowly and tried to find the smoothest terrain.  At 6:30 pm I arrived at what seemed like civilization, my latest day so far, and hardest as well, 2,100 meters of climbing.  I took the first hotel I came across, actually, my classiest place I’ve stayed so far in Vietnam.

The adventure that takes the cake though occurred the day I left Sapa.  The whole time I was in Sapa, I had the Tram Ton Pass on my mind.  I was also pretty obsessed with trying to stay warm. I had underestimated the cold and spent two days FREEEZING cold! I wore every single clothing item in my panners basically because I shipped on all my proper winter gear to New Zealand, thinking the climate in SE Asia would be mild!  This morning, I was so focused on keeping warm and heading out for the climb that I left my mind (and passport) somewhere else,…off in “la la land”. 

Fanispan coming out of the cloud on the descent

I had a nice ride, although I wasn’t as impressed with the pass as I thought.  Nothing compares to the roads and scenery in the Ha Giang province.  However, I was pleasantly surprised with the nice warm weather on the other side of the mountain.  Just as the Lonely Planet described, the pass takes you from Sapa, the coldest area in Vietnam, to Lao Cai, the hottest.  I was delighted to have the heat back and shocked with the dry climate I’d found west of Sapa.  The mountains also changed shape.  I’m now surrounded by Alpine like mountains covered in a new shade a green, one that is much more “lush” with a hint of yellow.  The most spectacular sight of all was the mountain, Fanispan, the tallest peak in Vietnam that loomed in the background as I descended The Tram Ton Pass.

I arrived at my destination rather early, I had plenty of time to go underwear shopping!  I went to give the hotel my passport, when I realized that I had left it at my last hotel.  In Vietnam, you can’t pay upon arrival like I did at the hotels in China.  They all want to keep your passport and give it back in the morning when you pay.  Well, this morning, the lady forgot to give it back, and I was so preoccupied with the cold weather and the climb, that I forgot about it myself.  Typical Melissa,….too many things on my mind.  At that very moment, panic set it.  I didn’t know what to do…Take a bus to Sapa, call the hotel and see if they could mail it or put it on the next bus?….Ride back tomorrow?  I was at a bit of a loss and not having a phone number of my hotel or a Google listing made the matter even more complicated. 

I realized the only way for me to get my passport back was to go and pick it up myself. 
Sapa was only 100 kilometers away, I could rent a motor scooter and be there the same evening.  I translated my idea on Google and asked the guys at the hotel where I could rent a motorbike.  They said such a service didn’t exist in town, so my next question was “Do you have a friend who could take me back to Sapa on motor scooter?”  In less than 3 minutes, there was guy waiting for me at the hotel.  I quickly showered, left my stuff, and hoped on!  He was going to charge me 20 euro to take me there, I probably could have even bargained down the price, but I was ready to pay much more than that!  I had no other option to retrieve my passport.

My motor scooter driver told me it would take about 3 hours each way.  It was only 100km but we were going over the highest pass in Vietnam, not once, but two more times!!  I had gone up about 1,300 meters in elevation today and it was going to be a slow journey, even with a motorized two-wheeler!  We left at 4pm.  I had on 5 layers and just before we started climbing my driver gave me another jacket.  Even then, I was still cold. At 10 am that morning, the temperature at the top was 6C.  Now I was going to hit the same pass at 6pm and 9pm on a road without any lights. 

All I could do was sit on the back of the bike, hold on, and hope that the hotel still had my passport.  I completely confided in my driver, he seemed cautious, using his blinker, horn (of course), and lights when it got dark. The pass went more quickly than I thought, stopping once for gas, and pulled into Sapa at 7pm.  I ran in to the hotel to get my passport and the receptionist apologized.  She served us some tea, and we were off again for Than Nyugen.  We were lucky there were no cars on the road except for a few trucks and a couple of water buffalo every now and again.  It made the ride much faster.

At 9:45 we were back in town and I was dropped off at the hotel.  I had a quick cup of tea with my driver, thanked him vigorously, and went to my room to warm up.  I was so clod from the motor scooter, it took until the next morning to finally feel warm again.  What an adventure!  I should have taken a photo of myself on the moto, I know, but at the time I wanted to forget about it and pretend like it never happened, so a photo was the last thing on my mind. 

I now have a little post-it note on the top of my handlebar bag that I read before I depart in the morning.  It reads…“Melissa do you have your passport, phone, camera, and chargers, stay focused!”  Of course looking at the positive side of the experience, it makes for a great story.  I consider myself extremely lucky for being able to retrieve my passport so easily, it could have been much more difficult and expensive.  You could also think of this mishap in a positive way in the sense that I’ve become so comfortable with the new lifestyle that I have that my guard is down, aka, I start to space out more and more…

Tomorrow might be my last day in Vietnam until I cross over again from Cambodia in the south.  100 kilometers brings me to the Laos border and depending on the terrain I might cross over tonight.  I can’t believe the amount of climbing I’ve done here in the North.  Every day the scenery changes as I ride down into a different valley.  No one ever talks about the other side of the mountain beyond Sapa, but if you ask me, after the Ha Giang province, it is the most beautiful scenery up north.  Sapa has terraced land and good hiking, but on the other side of the mountains the temperatures raise about 10 to 15C, there are no tourists, and the scenery is even more spectacular.  The places I’ve been riding don’t necessarily have things for tourist to do except ohh and awe at the landscape, and for the average tourist, that might get rather dull, but riding a bike it is more than enough to keep me pedaling!  

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