Cycling in Northern Vietnam: Mu Cang Chai to Nghia Lo
The “J” of my Myers-Briggs Type Indicator profile is strong – I love the act and art of planning. I’ve learned over time as a cyclist and guide, however, that an excess of planning often takes the excitement out of adventures. Spontaneous events, serendipitous encounters, and unmapped trails will linger in your memory far longer than your cadence from point A to B.
Inspired by Alastair Humphreys‘ philosophy of microadventures, I set aside one of my final weekends in Hanoi for a bicycle trip in Vietnam’s Northwest. My research went like this:
Me: Mai Lan, where should I go cycling this weekend?
ML: How about Lao Cai? I’ll book you a bus.
Me: Sounds good.
ML: I booked you a ticket with your bicycle to Mu Cang Chai.
Me: What about Lao Cai?
ML: Mu Cang Chai will be better. You’ll arrive at 3AM and can cycle through the mountains to Nghia Lo. My friend said it is mostly downhill. It might take you a day, maybe two. Bring a tent just in case.
And with that I am on the redeye bus to Mu Cang Chai, a beautiful mountain hamlet along Route 32 eight-odd hours north of Hanoi.
I arrive in Mu Cang Chai as scheduled at 3AM – if only the bus had been a few hours behind schedule, I could simply get on the road. Using my headlamp, I reassemble my bike and wander around the dark, breezy town. I find my way to a guesthouse, wake the security guard and, to his amazement, book a room for “three-hours only.”
A few short hours later, I am back on the saddle and rolling through beautiful village of Mu Cang Chai. The crisp mountain air rejuvenates my city lungs, while the sounds of cascading steams and distant rivers guide me from my half-slumber. I shed layers as the sunrises and warms the world. Cool mornings on my bike like this linger as spring for well-being.
As I depart the small village I pass women headed to the fields with children on the backs.
The road meanders along a river valley, affording beautiful views of the rice terraces below. I take a rest about thirty-minutes outside of town to boil a spot of coffee and some oats and berries.
Caffeinated, I start a long 50-kilometer climb to a 1,700 meter pass. At the time, however, I had no idea of the climb or road ahead besides the fact that I would arrive in Nghia Lo if I kept riding on Route 32 for another 80+ kilometers. No point in fretting – I had signed up for a weekend of unknowing. I had my hammock tent, some food, and time.
I just focused on the present. And the present was awfully inspiring.
After hours of peddling, I finally reach the pass. My reward is a roller coaster 25-km downhill into a terraced valley of rice and blooming wildflowers.
I stop for a spot of seasoned beef and rice in town before continuing downhill toward Nghia Lo.
With the sunsetting and Nghia Lo in view, I stop for a self-portrait on a small bridge.
All in, $28 for a nice little weekend adventure on winding roads in Vietnam’s rugged northwest – crisp mountain air for the soul.
GPS tracks & map available via Garmin Connect