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Wonderful days in Sapa

Wonderful days in Sapa
So, after some serious cycling and trudging up and down ridiculous bedrock tracks (that are supposed to be minor roads) in scorching heat we finally made Sapa, a hill town in the northwest of Vietnam. We had planned on cycling the 37km road from Lao Cai to Sapa, all of which is uphill and steep, taking you from around 280 metres to 1,650 metres and involves a series of 10+ % ascents.

However, given a problem with my gears I seemed to pick up on the way from Tuyen Quang whereby I could not change the front derailleur without getting of the bike and manually manipulating it, it seemed unlikely we would ever be able to make so instead opted for the minibus. After a friendly negotiation in which the driver went from demanding 500,000 dong (around $25) we finally settled on the correct amount of 50,000 each and 50,000 for the bikes, still a good deal for him and as we were leaving immediately, one we were happy with. Sapa is a delightful little town much loved by the French during their period of colonialism here, and seemingly also now, and rightly so . To me it came across as a mix between Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama in India, and Pokhara in Nepal. It had a refreshing coolness about it which was a welcome relief after the heat we had been experiencing of late. The town begins around a lake and the spreads down and around the hills providing beautiful, when not under cloud, views of the surrounding mountains and the largest in Vietnam (in fact Indochina), Mount Fanispan standing at 3,143 metres; unfortunately we never got even a glimpse at the peak of the mountain due to perpetual mist which, I suppose, cannot be too much of a surprise given we are deep into the monsoon period.

We checked into the Sapa Luxury Hotel which, whilst perhaps not being the most luxurious of hotels, by far met our needs and expectations and presented to us the most hospitable of of hotel staff we have found on our trip thus far (with Hanoi Rendezvous hotel running them very close). That first afternoon, as could be expected, revolved around hot showers, lounging in bed, drinking beer, watching movies, getting massages and eating pizza; Sapa could wait, particularly as it was raining.

The next day was bright and sunny giving us some great views, though none unfortunately of Fanispan. Either way we were able to wander and explore the town; though somewhat labouriously as we had energy reserves to replenish . We found the delightful 'English' pub called the 'Red Dragon' which we thought should really be Welsh but the mock Tudor woodwork, English beer mats and bar signs gave it a somewhat 'English' feel - of course we had to have a pint (of local Lao Cai - 3.5% so you can drink all day). We then went for lunch in a French cafe highly recommended by the (crap) Lonely Planet. After ordering a BLT sandwich (a welcome reprieve from the twice or thrice daily Pho or noodle soup) you can imagine my surprise when, after receiving my somewhat empty looking baguette, I looked inside to see only bacon. Upon inquiring about the the absence of both lettuce a tomato, somewhat key ingredients of a BLT, I was told to use the garnish, the exact same garnish that Sophie had on her tuna salad sandwich. I have course, hitherto, sworn never to eat in the place again and I feel I will be able to live up to this one.

Our final day in Sapa was reserved for getting my bike fixed which I now believe may have been a folly and should have been done immediately. We took it to a local travel company that specialise in mountainbiking having inquired on their ability to fix it. "Sure my mechanic can fix it, bring it in tomorrow morning" I was told. After one guy, supposedly a mechanic, looked briefly at it he said the geared were screwed and I needed to buy a new gear shifter. "Oh really I thought" and asked how long it would take to arrive . 'Luckily' they had one in stock. The one they tried to sell me was a combined gear shifter and brake lever made for mechanical brakes and not compatible with my hydraulic brakes. Seemingly the mechanic had not noticed this small issue instantly raising my suspicions. However with little option if the bike was going to the ready for the Tram Ton Pass and the mountainous route back to Hanoi, I left it with them so they could look at, and keep the current gear shifter. On receiving a call from the company to return as the mechanic needed to speak with me I went back a few hours later. The mechanic was a new one and readily explained to me that the gear shifter was broken and not able to be fixed whereby he presented me with exactly the same gear shifter/brake lever as before. Eying the disassembled gear shifter on the floor, and taking in the apparent inability of the 'mechanic' to recognise what kind of brakes the bike had I now seriously doubted their ability to fix, or even put back the gear shifter back together. The feeling was compounded when the manager, apparently noticing my concerned look, tried to appease me by saying "this is not a simple job, very difficult. But you can see how good we are by all the tools we have". Jesus Christ!!! My confidence in them shot to pieces I told them to just get it back together and call me when it was done. An hour or so later I went back and they were just completing it. They had managed to get it back together but now the shifter did not work at all, not even manually, and I would have to ride with the front gear set in position for the whole ride . This would be a bit of a problem given the route we had planned to go over however, after some discussion with Soph we decided to give it a try.

We now had to go back to the hotel as the managers had invited us to join the staff in a kind of staff dinner they hold 4 or 5 times a year. Initially we didn't really want to go but were very glad we did. All hotel staff had been exceptionally friendly and helpful and, as we were to find out later in the night, we had been invited particularly because we were easy guests and had not complained at all (Sophie was amazed by this because of my apparent continual complaining which I would somewhat contest. However when this was stated to us I did have to think about this and Sapa Luxury Hotel has been the only hotel we have stayed at - within a certain price range - that I have not had any call to complain: quite amazing really!). The food seemed to be a side issue when compared to the drinking. There were deep bowls of what looked like water but, when the guys dipped shot glasses into them we soon realise this was local moonshine. Not especially strong (compared to others we have had) and not at all foul, we did our duty and lived like Romans. Shots ahoy and shaking hands at every demand; roughly every 1.5 minutes. Soph was privileged to sit with me at the men's table - when given the choice she decided so based on the amount of drinking being done on our table as the women were not drinking so much - she is her mother and father's daughter :) . We were also wrong in our assessment of the gender segregation as the women probably drank more than the men but were not so noisy about it. When we got to the food we could see why it was a side issue, in our eyes at least. Along with the usual copious amounts of meat fat attached to any piece of meat, cartilage and other delicacies, was a dish neither of us had seen with a bright red, jelly-like surface. When we asked about the guys explain, with wide smiles, that it was a local delicacy made of fresh pigs blood - hence the bright red appearance and the daring smiles. Not ones to shirk a challenge we both tucked in. After eating locusts etc we thought no problem but the texture forces some kind of gag reflex. We both kept it down and nonchalantly managed to appear as if it was no big deal while inwardly hoping we would not empty our stomachs on the table of our gracious guests. We succeeded to much aplomb and continued into the night. As the night wore on we got into an interesting conversation on the relationship between Vietnamese and Americans and Vietnamese and Chinese. It was the first time we had really got the chance to sit and talk with Vietnamese and we shall forever be grateful to the staff of the hotel for welcoming us at their table. It just goes to show, for all the cliches, if you go with an open heart you will receive more than you expected.

In morning, Sophie with a hangover and me laughing at her, we got really for the day of hard riding ahead of us . As we were getting our bikes loaded up we spoke with one of the managers, Chin who we had been speaking with the night before. He told up part of the road had not been completed. This threw a spanner in the works and, after much deliberation, we decided it was too much of a risk given the dire condition of my gears and opted to return to Hanoi on a similar route as the one we came but on the other side of the river. This was to prove a wise choice as not more than 10km into our 37km descent back to Lao Cai my rear brake shot out. I heard a noise like a blown tire and the hydraulic stopped working. Thankfully the section of road I was on was not a 10%er and was relatively flat and I was able to stop. On examining the brakes I could see that the metal spring which holds the brake pads in place had snapped. The brake now kind of worked but I was not sure if and when it may fail altogether and we now had to descent the steepest road we have been of so far. I was nervous as too much use of the brake may make it blow out for good and to little may mean when I did need it when moving at high speed, it would not be there. After a nerve racking hour we descended the final 25 km into Lao Cai where we, again, wisely made the decision to take the bus to Hanoi and get my gears and brakes fixed up.

So there were are, another night bus to Hanoi to get my brakes fixed. We waited for the best part of the day in Lao Cai for the bus the left around 8pm to arrive at 5am . The obligatory valium and we slept through although this trip was not nearly as easy due to the twisty roads. In the morning we again arrived at a bus station outside of town but this time with a better idea of where we were going. The problem was the bus people had put the bikes in the hold rather roughly and when pulling them out tore my rear tire as I was to find out around 200 metres away when my tire went flat. Not happy. I pushed the bike for a while until we found a guy at the die of the road who was fixing bikes and rapidly approached only to be waved away and refused help. Well as you can guess my mood was not the best. We walked further until we managed to get it pumped up then cycled for a while until it went down again. In the end I had to do a repair on the side of the road (all the while desperate for a number two) which entailed lots of gaffa tape on the tear. Finally we could move again and after about 15 more minutes got back to Hanoi Rendezvous hotel where we had a booking and what a warm welcome back we received, our room all ready and hot shower to wake us up.

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