Road trip diary: Hanoi – Mu Cang Chai – Sapa

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The road between the mountains

This is the second time I’ve hit long distances by motorbike, but compared with the previous trip from Saigon to Phan Thiet on perfect roads (400km two ways, plus 70km to and from the white sand dunes) this trip to the northwest mountainous area of Vietnam was much more difficult and challenging. And it was even more memorable because we, two girls, could ride a manual bike up and down the mountains and race with the big trucks on halfway built roads under thick fog and heavy downpour. It was our 3 days “living” on the bike riding through roughly 850 km (510 miles). Well, Vietnamese people do love adventures and “risking their lives”, even too much, if you ask!

Preparation: 

Seven people joined the long journey and we planned to combine charity with our road trip. The ethnic groups in remote areas of Vietnam live in very poor conditions and their kids often don’t have enough school supplies. Thus, we prepared 30 little gifts for the kids before their new school year, each of which included 5 notebooks, 3 pens, 1 small towel, 1 soap, 1 toothbrush and 1 toothpaste.

My friend and I did most of the shopping for the charity trip. The shopping part was easy until it came to carrying about 30 kilos of stuff out of the supermarket on one bike back to my friend’s place. It was quite tough for 2 slim girls like us but we managed to make it at last. And.. that was only the beginning of a tiring and challenging trip to come.

Normally in a backpacking motorbike road trip girls don’t take the drive and only sit at the back. However, one guy quit before the trip, so my friend and I decided to go together and take turn to drive. We never knew what the mountain roads looked like..

Day 1: Hanoi – Mu Cang Chai, 310km (192.6 miles)

We left Hanoi at around 7.30 in the morning. All 4 bikes were manual ones. Basically each bike looked like this, with a big bag of gifts at the back or in front and 2 people on it, each with their luggage!

This is our “horse”. We love it!

After 50km the first break-down happened! We were driving on the street.. suddenly BOOM.. our front tire “exploded” and the whole group had to stop to find a repair shop to get it fixed. Although one of our travel mates knew how to fix a flat tire, he only did it in unavoidable situations when there were no professional repair shops around. Anyway, while waiting for the repair man we had a quick breakfast in a noodle shop nearby.

We drove for about 15 more minutes then the first rain of the trip came down on us (well, it was pouring to be exact). “Miserable!”, thought I. However, that pouring rain was actually nothing compared with what we went through during the motorbike trip.

The roads to the mountainous area in Vietnam are quite damaged, not only because of the poor construction but also because of over-weight trucks running back and forth 24/24, and actually a lot of hidden routes surrounding the mountains are not built yet or still under planning. Muddy and rocky roads are everywhere, which requires the motorbike drivers to be very firm and strong. However, the scenery is just magnificent, the kind of natural beauty you can only see if you travel on a bike!

On the way up to Mu Cang Chai, 2 more flat tire “cases” occurred. Our bike got one (again), this time was the back wheel.

The scariest part of the trip happened on top of a pass on the way to Mu Cang Chai. It was totally dark and foggy that even with the light on we almost couldn’t see anything. The road was rough and slippery with mountain on our left side and deep valley on the right side. I have to  say thanks God we went through it and still alive, and of course thanks to my friend who was driving then!

We arrived in Mu Cang Chai at around 8pm. And amazingly all the hotels and guest houses in that remote town were already booked! It was holiday in Vietnam (our Independence Day is on 2nd of September), so people went on road trips like going to a music festival. Luckily, we found a family who offered us 2 rooms in their house at a very cheap price so we were able to sleep that night a little bit. However, I was the unlucky one who couldn’t sleep because of 15 mosquito bites on my right arm(!)

A few photos from day 1:

View of the scenic countryside in Yen Bai province
View of the scenic countryside in Yen Bai province
The rice paddy fields are ripening. I love the scent on the way!
The rice paddy fields are ripening. Love the scent on the way!
The valley below
The valley below
Poor little kids we met on the way. We gave them candies and cookies.
Poor little kids we met on the way. We gave them candies and cookies.

Day 2: Mu Cang Chai – Sapa, 160km (99.4 miles)

Our plan for day 2 was to go a poor village of ethnic people to give the school supplies to the kids. However, the road to the village was way too tough as it was straight up on top of the mountains, so we had to give up and came back halfway and then headed directly to Sa Pa. “Only” 160 km of mountain roads to go..

The road was quite rough for the first 40km and this only 40km took us 2 hours and it was raining all the way!

We decided to drive into a small ethnic village on the way and gave all the gifts to the kids. It was great to see their smiles.

And then we had a quick lunch surrounded by picturesque nature.

Lunch among the picturesque nature

The way from Mu Cang Chai to Sapa was breathtaking! We went through beautiful streams and Hoang Lien Son range (the highest mountain range in Vietnam that has the Fansipan peak). Just marvelous! If you really want to explore Vietnam, please do yourself a favor and take this route like we did!

Magnificent view of the valley
Magnificent view of the valley
A little house we saw on the way
A little house we saw on the way
A beautiful stream we saw on the way
A beautiful stream
If you bring your swimsuit, this stream is a perfect place to relax
If you bring your swimsuit, this stream is a perfect place to relax
We could see a few high mounts
We could see a few high mounts
View of Hoang Lien Son mountain range on the way
View of Hoang Lien Son mountain range on the way
View of Hoang Lien Son mountain range on the way
The view of Hoang Lien Son seriously reminded me of the great Himalaya in Nepal
And here is the best view of Hoang Lien Son mountain range
And here is the best view of Hoang Lien Son mountain range from O Quy Ho pass

We arrived in Sapa at around 4pm and spent the whole evening there. Only one thing.. We didn’t bring warm clothes(!) Not.At.All!

Day 3: Sapa – Hanoi, 370km (230 miles)

We woke up at 6am and took a ride to the valley. Do you really need me to describe Sapa for you?! Probably I just need to wrap it up in one sentence “It will be a big mistake if you miss Sapa in your Vietnam trip!” Anyway, that was my 3rd time in this town so I only took a few pictures there.

Finally the whole group had a photo together in the misty Sapa
Finally the whole group had a photo together in the misty Sapa
The famous terrace field in Sapa
The famous terrace fields in Sapa
The beautiful valley
The beautiful valley

We started to head back to Hanoi from Sapa at 8.30am. Still 370km ahead. Much better roads this time compared with the last 50km on the first day. However, we had new “friends” on the way back – the trucks! They were really big nuisance in fact but we managed to overtake them all on the way. And still our old buddy came and went, the rain! We got totally wet through on the way back, even with raincoats. No flat tires occurred again though.

I arrived at home at around 10pm, being totally frozen from the cold and rains, extremely dirty from all the dust, entirely aching from too many activities and too little sleep, but absolutely happy because of the worthy cause we supported and the beautiful scenery we witnessed on the way, also very proud that we two girls could conquer such difficult roads just as well as the guys did. What’s more? Before the trip one of our travel mates already “warned” us: “Be careful. You’ll be addicted!”, and seriously.. I think.. I’m officially a new road trip addict now! “Hey guys when is the next one??” 😉

For those who still have no idea where Sapa and Mu Cang Chai are on the map, here is the illustration:

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19 thoughts on “Road trip diary: Hanoi – Mu Cang Chai – Sapa

    eshita said:
    September 7, 2012 at 12:41 PM

    wow!!! nice mien..:)

    Chris said:
    September 7, 2012 at 2:12 PM

    long hours on the road, huh? but great trip and cool photos!!! I love the North and every hour on the road is totally worth it!!

    – just been there a few weeks ago (Hanoi – Ba Be – Hoang Su Phi – Xin Man – Bac Ha – Lao Cai – Sapa – Mung Canh Chai – Vu Linh – Hanoi)… photos here http://www.flickr.com/photos/cuulongden/sets/72157630987509404/

      Pham Hoang Mien responded:
      September 7, 2012 at 2:44 PM

      yeah, i guess the north is way better than the south for those who love motorbike trips. Mostly thanks to the mountain roads. Btw, I saw your photos already. I remember retweeting it :-D. Great ones. Can’t compete with you professional anyway 😛

    Alt-Shift-Enter said:
    September 7, 2012 at 8:54 PM

    This was a really interesting read, thanks for sharing and well done on doing something for the kids.

      Pham Hoang Mien responded:
      September 10, 2012 at 10:52 AM

      Thank you for passing by my blog and the nice comment! 🙂 We are glad that we could help the kids. Hope we could do more charity trips like this in the future

    trangnguyen said:
    September 7, 2012 at 10:22 PM

    Wow the view is terrific! and more than that what is a meaningful trip!. After reading your article, I am desired to be experienced in such way! Sapa is coming! ^^

      Pham Hoang Mien responded:
      September 10, 2012 at 10:54 AM

      Wow definitely gonna be cool adventures going by motorbike from Hanoi to Sapa! 😉 Good luck and have fun!

    hktphotography said:
    September 9, 2012 at 11:39 PM

    Wow, what’s a nice and adventurous trip!!! I live in the U.S and always enjoy reading your blog about your adventure Vietnam, the country of my birth. I have done 2000 + mile road trip that I have yet to write about, but it’s a car though so it’s not that adventurous. I’m also glad that you brought up supplies for the children, must have meant a lot to them. Perhaps next time you can be more adventurous and do the trip on a bicycle? 🙂

      Pham Hoang Mien responded:
      September 10, 2012 at 10:58 AM

      Thanks for the nice comment. Great to hear that you like what I wrote! You should blog about your road trips too. Whatever car or motorbike or bicycle it will definitely be awesome! Yeah I did think about bicycle but it will take a lot more time and will be more difficult to find company coz Vietnam is a motorbike country 😛

    […] the motorbike road trip in September to Mu Cang Chai and Sapa, our travel group set off again for the new year holidays. This time our trip covered a famous […]

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    toursvietnam111 said:
    January 20, 2014 at 6:03 PM

    Very good information thanks for sharing.

    […] and Lai Chau): I’ve had the chance to witness its magnificence on my first mountain motorbike road trip Hanoi – Mu Cang Chai – Sa Pa. It is possibly one of the most beautiful natural sites that I have ever seen by my own eyes, no […]

    adrianstraveltales said:
    September 20, 2014 at 12:20 AM

    Epic! And beautiful! I love this region of the world, it is by FAR my favorite (SE Asia in general). I am impressed with your ability to be on a bike so long though. After about 120k my backside starts hurting! haha! 🙂

      Pham Hoang Mien responded:
      September 20, 2014 at 12:33 AM

      Haha thanks for passing by my blog and for the comment. C’mon we Vietnamese were all born on a motorbike lol. Just kidding but yeah we are pretty good with long distance travels on bikes, though my back did hurt badly after those 4 days. By the way, nice website you have! Good luck with your travel job! That’s brave 🙂

    Helga Yon said:
    May 27, 2015 at 10:21 PM

    I can tell you had an awesome time. The pictures are lovely, thier are really amazing views in Mu chang chai. They kids are so cute, thanks

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