Montag, 15. August 2011

Day 8 - Nghia Lo to Ha Noi

16th April 2011, Saturday

1181-1375 km

Our last day on the road! Route 32 remains spectacular for the first half of the day. Around midday we enter the province of Phu To. I’ve driven through this province, bordering Hanoi in the north-western corner, several times. Large parts of it are urban and ugly. But today we drive through the southern part of the province and it’s almost as lovely and mountainous as Yen Bai. Rice fields give way to tea terraces. Tea in Vietnam is grown mostly on hill slopes and in small lots; the plants themselves are no more than 30 cm high.

A rice and tea farmhouse

Tea terraces in Phu To

A church - a clear indicator that we are entering the Red River plains

In the afternoon everything changes:

About 150 kilometres out of Hanoi traffic increases and trucks and busses start driving aggressively. The honking begins and people drive as if they were blind. The Hanoi conurbation is getting closer. About 100 kilometres out we cross the Da River, shortly before it flows into the Red River, and enter Hanoi province – despite the worsening traffic there is one last respite ahead: the arterial road we are taking into Hanoi from the north-west passes through the still largely rural district of Son Tay. It lies close to the national park and mountain of Ba Vi. A mountain with mythohistorical relevance, somehow like a Vietnamese Mt. Olympus. The road turns out to be one of the most scenic ones in Hanoi province. It goes relatively straight though flat country; with the Red River dike to your left and green rice fields to the right.

The fertile fields of Ha Noi

On the dike

Red River - the Mother River

There are worse ways to transport a pig ...

The good quality and size of this road is probably due to a now abandoned relocation and construction plan by Vietnam’s central government. In the last years they made plans to relocate almost all the government buildings (ministries, departments, etc.) to this far of district. And off course that would necessitate quick access from the “new” capital to the centre of the “old”. Fortunately these plans were scrapped – what has been left are plans to relocate several of Hanoi’s universities to this spot. The road is already there.

Unfortunately about 50 kilometres out even that short reprieve ends and we are back in the thick of it.

After exactly 1.375 kilometres we are back home.

Map of the routes I've driven in Tonkin / Northern Vietnam

Samstag, 13. August 2011

Day 7 - Sa Pa to Nghia Lo

15th April 2011, Friday

952-1181 km

The view from our hotel in Sa Pa

... the fog lifts ...

Today we drove back over the pass skirting Mount Fansipan and all the way to the junction outside of Tam Duong. From there we turned onto national road 32 – one of the main objectives of our tour. A good friend, who took this route driving a motorbike in 2010, told me about it and I have been yearning to drive it ever since: it lived up to our expectations and even surpassed them. This was the most enjoyable day of our trip. It started out with the weather being clearer and us finally getting a clear view of looming Fansipan.

Fansipan's peak


Foothills below Fansipan

At the junction

The first part of the way went through the two Lai Chau districts of Tan Uyen and Than Uyen (you really need to be a champion in Vietnamese pronunciation to hear the difference between these two!). We passed through a pristine cultivated landscape with nicely kept fields and villages among the foothills of the Mountain. The road could easily stand up to any German “Landstrasse” (countryside highway), the traffic almost non existent.

Foothills in Tân Uyên

Leaving Tân Uyên, entering Than Uyên

The Shire??

Tea on the slopes and rice in the lowlands

Buffalo spa

... more tea ...

Route 32

Karst formations ... we are getting closer to the Red River Plains

... even more tea ...

I could probably think of some Middle Earth simile ...
The "mysterious" province of Yen Bai is just around the corner

The moment we entered Yen Bai province the road condition worsened, but it got better along the way and almost got back to its former perfect condition. Yen Bai, the lost province, its nickname in Vietnamese is “Tranquillity”. You’ll find nothing on this province in any of the several guide and travel books I collected and looked into since our time in Vietnam. Although it is the site of a historical important uprising by Vietnamese nationalist soldiers in 1930, as well as being closer to Hanoi than most other mountainous provinces, it doesn’t seem to have attracted the attention of tourism companies and landscape developers in the capital yet – or that of one certain blue guide book.

The first part of the province is a dreamscape of low hills covered by rice terraces interspersed with karst rocks. Getting into the higher regions – mountains reach up to 2979 meters in this area – the terraces cover the foothills and sometimes whole hills. We drive along a mountain stream, red from the runoff clay, winding through fresh green rice. You see kids splashing in the water under narrow bridges spanning the valleys. Further up we drive through gorges with pine trees covering the slopes kilometres on end.

Gas station in Vietnam's "wild Northwest"

2,5 tons limit, for the left or right bridge??

... on second thought ...

First aid station in case of traffic accidents

Best place for drying manioc chips: flat, dry, hot

Duck with rice - a delicacy in the Northwest
Not as often as we thought ...

This fish restaurant actually looked very inviting, but was closed

All the stages of rice cultivation on one terrace

Rice and pine trees

A cruise ship??

After crossing a second mountain pass (the Chau Pass) we behold the plain of Nghia Lo, Yen Bai’s second largest city. The view is breathtaking, as if looking down from the perch of Zeus or more fittingly the Jade Emperor. Tranquillity indeed, let’s hope it stays that way.

The plain of Nghia Lo

After a perceived hundred stops for a thousand pictures we arrived in Nghia Lo, a small provincial town with the relic of an infamous colonial era prison – serving a similar function as the one in Son La. Of the two hotels in town we chose the one on the left (there is a three star hotel under construction – maybe for next time). Nothing special, but cheap and clean with a nice patio. For dinner we ventured into town and found a family restaurant where, after surpassing some communication obstacles, we were served delicious fried Snakehead, fish soup, stirred herbs and rice. And beer of course. No speak the English.

Hotel Nghia Lo