Thursday 22 September – Tú Lệ – Mù Cang Chải
Up around 7.30am, and the first thought is to try and stretch various muscles that aren’t overly enamoured with having had to lay on something for 8 hours, that can’t be depressed by a standard human body.
While the muscle aches may also be age related – okay, are age related, these mattresses ain’t helping.
Bit of a pack up, then downstairs by 8.00am. Toan and Hung are already there, and after the usual morning pleasantries, Toan asks me where the beer bottles are that I brought back last night.
“Oh, are we taking them back now?”, is my response, not really thinking that we obviously would be, seeing as he’s just asked.
The stairs are once again traversed, bottles retrieved, stairs traversed again, this time saving a rather large beetle from a likely crushing experience, and I’m back where I started three minutes ago.
Out onto the main road, and we head off up the hill in the same direction we did last night. The ground is wet; obviously rained last night; and the day is grey and gloomy. While I try and remain positive that last night’s rain has passed, and therefore the rest of the day will be dry, that’s probably more me trying to be positive, rather than realistic in what I’m seeing, and what I’m sensing.
We get to last night’s restaurant, and fortuitously, they also do breakfast.
Bottles handed back, we take a seat, and four bowls of phở bò are ordered. While it’s far from cold outside, the grey gloominess makes eating hot noodle soup seem more appropriate than when the sun is beating down.
Regardless, it is good, and I’ve sort of missed our phở over the last couple of days. We sit and relax for a bit, and then watch the locals start covering up, as that rain that I’d convinced myself was now someone else’s problem, begins to fall.
Breakfast done, rain now stopped, we head back down the hill to the hotel. Upstairs to finish the packing up thing, but now ensuring we make far more use of our zip-lock bags.
Chore complete, the stairs traversed for the final time, our bags once again strapped onto the back of the bikes, and we’re on our way by 9.30am.
Back up the main road, and I can’t help but to think back to the last time I did this exact same drive five years ago. Not far past the restaurant, we veer off to the right, and while I’ve never been down this road before, I know exactly where we are. We’re in the village that I looked down upon, and photographed, when I was last here with Toan. That particular view was the first ‘wow’ moment of the day, and probably the biggest ‘wow’ moment of the trip at that point.
We reach the village, and while the vista of the whole thing looked good from the road, it’s just as good being right in amongst it.
So real, so rustic, so authentic, and so picturesque. We spend some time riding around, occasionally stopping to watch the locals go about their day, as well as just generally taking in the amazing scenery.
Including a paraglider who came down from a nearby mountain in the misty greyness, that is this morning. That paraglider was then followed down by several more, and while it was all interesting watching them do their thing, it all just looked, and felt, a bit out of place for the area.
One of the paragliders, if you look closely, but it’s really all about the scenery.
Regrettably it was soon time to move on so as to achieve our goal of getting to Mu Cang Chai, so we made our way out of the valley. Past the actual ‘drop zone’ of the paragliders, which was a hive of activity, and then back up onto the main road. We continued on up the mountain, and as we did we were passed a couple of times by rather large four wheel drive ute type cars, with paragliding signage on the body. They seemed to be in quite the hurry, and my suspicion was that it was due to the weather, which had now changed to the much greyer, and far more misty and foggy variety.
It was also starting to become significantly cooler, but still more than bearable. Further up the mountain, still on the same road that Toan and I travelled five years ago, and it all begins to close in. Visibility is now highly reduced – being in a cloud will do that; and my belief is that we are not too far off from getting wet.
And sure enough, and unfortunately, my belief is correct.
It’s not heavy, but it’s enough rain that it is going to get you significantly wet, should we persist riding with a lack of some sort of plastic covering.
We pull over at a local’s house on the side of the road, who just happens to have an undercover area where we can get sorted. Ponchos are quickly out, and it’s not long before we’re all suitably attired to take on what nature is dealing us.
She wears it so well….
On the move again, and with us still heading up the mountain, I’m not expecting any break in the weather.
But, having been on this road before, and knowing that not too far further on we will reach the top before then descending on the other side, the uneducated weather man in me is reasonably hopeful that somewhere around that point, we may well receive a reprieve from the wet stuff.
The climb continues, as does the rain, and just like that day in 2017, it’s just not a great deal of fun. The ponchos certainly help, but they’re far from perfect. It’s now rather cold, and because of the lack of visibility, there’s very little to see and look at to take your mind off the whole thing.
We eventually reach the ‘other’ side of the mountain, and not long after, the rain eases, and then stops. Relief attained, and a little smugness creeps in at my weather forecasting prowess, not that Lisa fully, or even mildly, appreciates it.
Just after 11.00am we come across a small town, and with things looking far brighter, we take the opportunity to remove our plastic. Well, three of us do, as Toan is still not convinced we’ve seen the last of the rain.
The town itself is a hive of activity, and also very colourful, with a couple of vendors selling minority group’s clothing. With a local market over the road, we go for a walk with Toan, while Hung looks after the bikes.
Into the market, and while it’s a bit of a labyrinth of rather dark walkways, it’s, as always, hugely interesting.
Almost back to the road we walked off, and apart from two female vendors selling their wares, there’s not too many around. In fact with there being no else apart from them, and just the three of us, it’s incredibly quiet.
So quiet, and I’d noticed this just a minute earlier, that the only noise that you can hear is a ‘swish, swish’ noise, coming from Toan’s plastic pants as he walks.
I was actually about to say something, when one of the vendors suddenly called out ‘swish, swish, swish’, along with a giggle. It was only a small thing, but the way she said it gave me a good laugh.
Toan still with his noisy pants on.
Back out to the bikes on the road, and Toan decides, perhaps because his plastic pants have been insulted, that it’s time he can remove them.
While he did that, Lisa and I had a bit of a look at the minority clothing, but not too close a look as to not show too much interest lest we get hounded to buy.
Alas, one of them caught us looking, and motions were made trying to encourage us to buy. That was never going to happen, as a bit like a simple non la hat, it really is only the locals who can pull off their traditional clothing.
Well, in my opinion….
We politely declined with a smile, while I continued to check out some of the other bits and pieces that were on offer. Five years ago I bought a small metal cow bell at a market up North, and it’s quite possibly the greatest ‘souvenir’ I’ve ever bought anywhere. Not because of it being practical or anything, but because of where we were when I bought it, the person who I bought it off, and also the fact that it is as far away from your usual tourist tat that you can get.
It meant a lot at the time, and it still takes pride of place in the bar at home.
But this stuff I’m looking at now is different. There’s knives and things, and other bits and pieces, but it all looks mass produced, and made to order. As in for the tourist market.
That, and the minority clothing, now has me thinking.
Just as Toan finishes packing away his poncho and noisy pants, what was probably always going to happen, happens.
Yep, it starts raining again, with the timing being so impeccable, it was actually funny.
Plasticware once again brought out, followed by the dressing process being repeated, as the shop and market vendors scramble to cover their goods.
Suitably covered, we’re back on the bikes heading in the general direction of Mu Cang Chai. The rain continues, but it’s more an inconvenience than a problem, as it’s not as heavy as when we were up the mountain. About half an hour later, the rain having now stopped, we come across a large group of people, along with just as many bikes, on the side of the road.
We pull over, and while Toan and Hung find somewhere to park, I stand there trying to work out what is actually going on.
The only things that I am sure about is that it’s clearly all ethnic minority stuff, as well as there also appearing to be some sort of tour service thing on offer.
Well, maybe not a tour as such, but more an opportunity to ‘employ’ someone to take you up a narrow, and rather steep, path on the back of a bike.
At the bottom of Raspberry Hill.
Much to Lisa’s dismay, we decide to walk the path, but this time with Hung, while Toan looks after the bikes.
We head off on foot, and yep, the path is every bit, and then some, as steep as it looks from down below.
But, no pain, no gain, so I push on while giving kind hearted encouragement to the Intrepid one, which she may, or may not, have appreciated.
Up we go, and as we do, the views just get better. Looking down atop lush green rice terraces, mountains in the distance, the occasional water buffalo, and stilt houses dotted throughout the landscape, it was seriously picturesque.
I think the colour of the sky helped to enhance what we were looking at.
Threshing the newly picked rice.
Just getting in the way again.
I manage to get Lisa far further up than she had originally planned on going, before the rain once again becomes a thing.
With not too much around in relation to natural shelter, Hung makes use of a covered area of a local’s stilt house. There’s no one home, but even there was, I doubt that us strangers dropping in unannounced would be a problem. We wait it out next to some drying rice on a tarpaulin, which, with it being a small stilt house, is above the water buffalo resting below. It’s all just so surreal, and it’s not a bad way to spend a few wet minutes.
Our companion while we sheltered from the rain.
I can never tire of this stuff, but somewhere in the back of my mind, there is something vaguely familiar about the path we’ve just walked up, as well as this view.
The rain eases, then stops, so Lisa is once again encouraged to go that bit further. She begrudgingly agrees, while Hung seems to be in his element with what he’s seeing.
We don’t get too far before that rain begins to do its thing again, so we decide it’s probably time to pull the pin. Back down the hill, stopping briefly at our original shelter once again to wait it out, before making the final push down to where we started.
Hung gets talking to a local, who ends up giving him some small, and very hard, guava, which he’s keen for us to try. I’m not sure how many people eat guava like this, but for me, something that hard, and that bitter, doesn’t have a great deal of appeal.
A younger version of the earlier one.
We continue on back down the narrow path, and as when we began our ascent, it’s a hive of activity at the bottom. While we saw a few bikes going up and down the hill, most, but far from all, with pillion passengers, there doesn’t seem to be an overabundance of tourists here at the moment. Which means the vast majority that are here, are people touting for the business of being able to take you up the hill, and then no doubt back down.
I find it all a little strange, and it just seems out of place.
We find Toan, giving up on the rock-like guavas as we do, and then stand around for a bit taking in the madness in front of us. There’s a big billboard, and it seems the place, or the hill, is known as ‘Raspberry Hill’. And there’s still something vaguely familiar to me, about it.
Not the sign, or the throng in front of us, but just the general area, as well as what we just saw up the hill.
The penny then drops, or at least I think it does, and I ask Toan the question, “Did we come here in 2017?”
He replies yes, we did, and now I can kind of picture in my mind what it looked like back then, and how it all felt.
It is now very different in both regards, as when we did it five years ago, there was, essentially, nothing here but the steep and narrow path. No touts, for want of a better word, no billboard, and no buzz; just a few locals going about their day.
It’s now become something considerably different, and while I certainly don’t begrudge the locals trying to earn a dollar, I can’t help but think that the ‘new’ look, and feel, hasn’t improved the area.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s been great to get the opportunity to see it again, and I know Lisa, despite the climb, enjoyed it, but I’m also very glad that I saw it long before it became a ‘thing’.
Back on the bikes, no plasticware required for the time being, we make our way towards Mu Cang Chai, ultimately arriving a bit after 1.00pm.
With lunch calling, we end up at a rather large restaurant, and as is my preferred way, I let Toan and Hung look after the food side of things. The pork dish we have is beautiful, the water buffalo good, and it all comes with the usual rice and greens.
Stomachs dealt with, we head back outside to continue into town, and hopefully find somewhere to stay tonight.
We stop a few times so Toan and Hung can check out some small local accommodation places, while I keep an eye out for nearby beer places. We eventually decide on a place we’d ridden past earlier, and the good news is that there is a convenience store just a few doors down. The bad news is that I haven’t noticed any local beer places nearby, but that doesn’t matter, we’ll work that out later.
Upstairs to drop our things, and while the room is basic, it’s certainly nice enough, and more than adequate.
Back downstairs, and back on the bikes. But only for a minute or two. We now have another steep hill in front of us, but one that while a little wider than the previous, is far steeper.
In fact, it looks that steep, that it looks like you could almost lean against it.
Toan looking back, me looking up. And wondering…..
Toan pays a guy an ‘entrance fee’, and we begin the climb. And yep, it’s steep. So steep that Toan’s bike is struggling to the point where mechanical ascent with the two of us on board, may not be possible.
We eventually reach a flat-ish point, and stop to wait for Hung and Lisa. Hung’s bike isn’t quite as powerful as Toan’s, and Lisa is forced to do it on foot.
Reunited, we continue, albeit very slowly, up the ‘cliff face’, before once again reaching a flatter area. Toan and I sit and wait, but there’s no Hung and Lisa. I begin to get a bad feeling about this; not concerned at all that something bad has happened to her, but sort of knowing what has likely occurred; and I’m pretty sure I know what I’m going to be confronted with the next time I see Lisa.
Toan heads back down to see what’s going on, before returning a few minutes later with Lisa on the back of his bike, while Hung is alone on his. And yep, she’s fragile, because she’s blaming herself for Hung’s bike’s inability to carry the two of them up this path.
But it’s not her fault; it’s actually no one’s fault; it’s just that this path is so incredibly steep in parts, that a lot of bikes would struggle with just one person on them, let alone with two.
Sympathy shown, sympathy acknowledged, I turn to walk up a narrow dirt track that snakes off above the path we’re on, to get a slightly better view of what’s around us.
I turn to the right, and then immediately motion to Lisa to come up. She’s initially reluctant, but my ‘I’m not going to take no for an answer’, look, convinces her to come up.
And like me, she’s not disappointed.
Standing next to a stilt house, rice terraces behind us, beside us, and in front of us. And off into the distance, huge mountains, covered in both jungle as well as more beautifully formed rice terraces.
The scale of the whole thing, as well as its beauty, is hard to comprehend, but even more difficult is trying to get the camera to capture what my eyes are seeing.
It’s definitely one of those ‘wow’ moments.
We head back to the bikes and give them another go for a bit, but it soon gets steep again, so we decide it’s just easier to walk.
And honestly, after so much sitting down, it’s nice to be able to stretch your legs, anyway.
Toan and Hung make their way towards the ‘top’, while Lisa and I, now that this morning’s rain is but a distant memory, take a leisurely stroll. And the walking ends up being very fortuitous, as we get to see views that we would have missed, had we been motoring by.
We soon reach the top, and a little like the bottom of Raspberry Hill, there’s quite a few around. Again, it’s all ethnic minorities, along with bikes, and again, it’s clear that it is very much business related.
Now a little higher up, but now also from a slightly different angle, we take in the views. It seriously is just stunning, and again, the scale of the whole thing makes it difficult to comprehend. While I try not to compare places, this most certainly takes me back to some of the stuff that I saw with Toan in 2017. It’s also scenery that I hoped we’d see on this trip, so as to show Lisa.
Toan and Hung.
We stand around for a while, taking it all in, and of course trying to get the camera to do what it is incapable of doing.
But there is something that is somewhat impacting this whole experience.
It is a recorded message, being played over a loudspeaker on constant repeat, obviously trying to promote or sell some sort of service or product.
Again, I don’t begrudge people trying to earn a living, but the incessant noise really did become irritating.
So irritating in fact, that Lisa could handle it no more, and decided to start walking off back down the mountain on her own. That little decision annoyed me far more than the annoying loudspeaker noise, and now not having that great a desire to spend any more time with her, I didn’t bother to try and stop her.
But when Toan realised she’d gone, he was genuinely concerned. This also annoyed me because it was far from anything he had done wrong; and we made the move on the bikes to pick her up on the way down.
We quickly found her, unfortunately, and we made our way down the steep slope, with the bike’s brakes in constant use.
Reaching the very beginning of the steep bit up, which is now obviously the end of our ride down, it was agreed that the bikes would do it better with just one on board.
The assumption is always that walking up a hill is harder than walking down one, but that is often very wrong. And with Lisa’s knees the way they are, going down this particular slope necessitated in her having to walk backwards for a bit of the way.
This amused the ‘toll’ collector at the bottom, which in turn did not amuse Lisa.
I also was not amused, but not with the toll collector guy.
Back on the bikes, and two minutes later we were back at the hotel.
Lisa dropped off; no words spoken; I need a beer. Or several.
Back outside, and as is the usual way, I have left or right, as my options.
I choose left, for some reason, and begin the walk. Past the convenience store, which will likely come in handy later, and then over a small bridge. Lots of smiles and hellos, which helps somewhat with my current mood, and the walk continues. But alas, no beer places found.
I eventually give up, vowing never to turn left again, and head back from where I came. As I get to the hotel, Hung is out the front, and I give him an exasperated ‘Beer!?’.
He can’t help, other than to point to the right, seeing as he knows that I’ve been unsuccessful with my initial plan of left.
Three, possibly four, doors down, I find a small local restaurant. Mum is in there with a couple of young kids and it’s a little dark, which may mean that she’s not actually open, but there are signs that they may actually sell beer.
I’ve reached the desperate stage. I need a beer because I want a beer, I need a beer because I really need a beer, and I need a beer because I don’t want to go back to the room.
I head in, Mum looks up from the kids, and I receive a rather surprised look.
“Beer?”, “Please”, almost pleading.
She smiles, nods, pulls a chair out from a nearby table, and heads to the fridge at the back. I quickly, and finally, have what I’ve much needed and wanted.
A couple of beers savoured while watching the world do its thing, along with some small interactions with a couple of my beer lady’s customers who are quite surprised to see me when they come in.
Getting close to dinner time, and still not totally convinced they are ‘open’, I decide it might be time to get out of her way, just in case she needs to sort the kids out with their dinner.
As I go to pay, I try to get my point across that I’d like to buy some to take with me. It works, but she has a slightly concerned look on her face. I’ve been here before, and I know exactly why she has given me that look. It’s to do with giving me beer in bottles, which need / should be returned. Having been here before, I understand that, and I also know exactly how to deal with this issue.
“Beer lon?”, I say, in Vietnamese (but write in a mix of Vietnamese and English), which is beer in a can.
The concerned look is replaced with one of relief, and she gives me a smile as she retrieves what I need.
Bill paid, much appreciative cảm ơn given, I head back to the hotel.
Up the stairs, and I can’t do it. I’m still annoyed, and I’m just not ready to see her. Instead, I stand around the corner on a balcony area at the back of the hotel, which overlooks the river, and watch Mu Cang Chai, all be it the outskirts of it, go about its business, while enjoying my bia lon’s.
My view from the balcony, while I put off the inevitable.
Eventually I reach the stage where I have no choice, and make my way inside with my last remaining beer.
“Oh, do you have one for me?”, is the reaction to my presence.
I obviously don’t, so trying not to make it any worse than it already is, I make a retreat back outside, and down to that convenience store I’d walked past earlier.
Couple of beers, a packet of chips, as well as, for some still unknown reason, a chocolate Snickers bar that there is no way that I will eat.
Back upstairs, bounty handed over, and there seems to be some appreciation.
Have a quick shower, then downstairs where Toan and Hung are waiting, and we walk out into the now darkened main street of Mu Cang Chai.
Just at that moment, a western ‘tourist’ walks down from the right, and I’m absolutely blown away.
Not because we haven’t seen too many tourists, but because I immediately recognise him.
We had spoken in the lead up to our trip of perhaps catching up at some point while we were in Hanoi, but Mike had got his dates mixed up, and our paths were no longer going to cross while we were in the city. He had mentioned that he may be in Mu Cang Chai around the same time as us, but it all seemed a bit difficult and unlikely we could make something work.
But now, after all that has happened today, we walk out the front door of the hotel at exactly the same time that Mike is walking past.
A dinner invitation is immediately offered, which is then immediately accepted, but we’ll have to meet him there, as apparently he has been traipsing around areas frequented by water buffalos, and as such, is in much need of a shower.
Mike heads off to deal with that, while the four of us find a restaurant down the road. Food, along with the important beers, are ordered, and as per Mike’s strict instructions, we start before he gets back.
But miss much he doesn’t, as a few minutes later he turns up. And he has come bearing gifts, well, more gift, than gifts, as there is only one, but it is a gift that continues to give for quite some time.
Yep, it’s a bottle of rice wine, and perhaps not surprisingly, I think I love him more than Lisa right now.
Food enjoyed, beers loved, and the rice wine appreciated the way rice wine should be appreciated. While all of that was great, the absolute highlight was once again meeting a guy I truly count as a mate.
While Toan headed back to his room reasonably early to catch up on family matters, Hung remained a little longer to help with the rice wine.
It was just a brilliant night, and one that to me was completely unexpected, with the time absolutely flying by.
Eventually it was time to call it, partly because the rice wine was starting to have an impact, and partly because the restaurant was making closing noises, so we bid our farewell to Mike.
This is where I would normally put the selfie photo that I took of the three of us, before parting ways, but that’s not possible, as someone forgot to actually do that.
Apart from too much rice wine, I have no other excuse.
Back upstairs to the room, and I’m stuffed. It’s been, for the most part, a good day. The amazing scenery of Tu Le this morning, followed by the uncomfortableness of riding over mountains in the rain. The enjoyment of seeing ‘Raspberry Hill’ (even though I never knew it as that) again, but tempered by what it has now become. Then seeing the amazing landscape of Mu Cang Chai, but again being impacted by popularity, as well as, let’s say, a disagreement.
But then to finish it all off, our ‘chance meeting’ with Mike. And that little thing, quite possibly, surpassed everything we did, and everything we saw, today.
So yeah, a good day. Mostly.
10.30pm, I’m done. Again, I’ll blame the rice wine….