The squeaking, which kept me from sleeping for the last ten hours, is diminishing, and the rocking and resonating is slowing down. It seems as if the journey is coming to an end. While some are still asleep in our cabin, passengers from other cabins are already storming out in the direction of Lao Chai's departure platform. The little village in the hills, in the north of Vietnam.
While pulling aside the curtain with the back of my hand, watching the colourful ado at the departure platform, there's a knock at our door. The porter opens and calls inside that we are there now. Well, that's my guess, because the Vietnamese language is so foreign sounding that I cannot understand a word.
We are getting ready to leave the train. Most passengers are trekking-tourists and only have a rucksack as their luggage. I toss my duffle bag over a shoulder, grab my laptop bag and try to lug my bike bag through the narrow corridors.
As soon as we reach the door of the old iron lady, absolving the nocturnal journey that's been occurring for the last several centuries, taxi and bus-drivers standing in front of the train start grabbing my luggage. I try to explain that we already have a driver, but the language barrier proves difficult to cross.
Finally reaching the station's gate, there are several people standing, holding signs with names on them. From a distance, I can see the edge of a sign with the Asien Special Tours' logo, the travel operator that has helped us to organize this trip. As we get closer we can see our names on the sign.
Now we only have to make it clear to our athletic baggage porter that we still don't need his help. But where in other countries this would have resulted in harsh words and shouting, the friendly man hands us our luggage, nods in our direction and heads off into the crowd. After a 14 hour flight and a 10 hour train, only a one hour bus ride up the hill separates us from our destination, Sapa.
The small village up in the hills, close to the Chinese border and at the foot of the 3143m high Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam, which despite its elevation is populated.
Everywhere there are motor scooters, used as means of transport here. That is why you can see half a pig or 50 headsets hanging across the seat here and there. Numerous residents wearing traditional clothing are running around, trying to sell stuff. At each small house there is a shop, selling delicacies like cobra inside of brandy bottles or half breaded eggs. Another flood of stores is offering, probably "very original,“ outdoor jackets from different famous brands for $30.
Because Philip, the photographer accompanying me, has been staring nervously out of the window during our journey here, searching for trails, our first destination at Sapa is the tourist information center. There we discover that mountain biking in Vietnam is almost unheard of. Not only can the man not give us any information about it, it seems as if biking besides on the paths seems to be impossible. During the 32 years he has been living in Saba, no one has ever ridden a bike on the paths surrounding his village. After his eruption he storms out of his office and let us stay where we were.
Luckily I found Pham, a guide of the region in preparation for our journey. I sent her some pictures and videos and made an appointment. After a short talk it was clear: Pham was our woman and she knew what was going on. The next day at nine o'clock, Pham was waiting with a driver she'd organized, a little excited and impatient at the entrance hall of our hotel. For the first few days we wanted to focus on producing good pictures. Later that week we wanted to go "real" riding.
The first location Pham showed us was a trail leading to a small settlement inside a rice-plantation. The view across the plantations was insane, giving us a good perspective of our surroundings. After barely five minutes, Philip – lying on the ground, trying to catch the right perspective – is surrounded by ten little children with and without pants and running noses. They were all coming out of the small huts, spread throughout the landscape. They had never seen a real mountain bike before.
After getting some good pictures, we head back to our driver, who is helpfully taking my bike. Philip is trying to survive the descent on the muddy ground, while Pham is maliciously laughing. Because our driver has never sat on a carbon 29er, he gives it a try on the asphalt, which ends with a bit of a spill because of a little too much front brake. Looking sheepish, he returns my bike to me.
And so it went for several days. Pham lead us to her village, to the jungle and to markets. Everywhere we appeared, we were the number one topic of conversation and there was barely anyone who did not want to ride around on the bike. Luckily, the one fall remained the only, and so we had a downright great time at a country that still hasn't discovered its potential as a mountain bike destination.