Taking a new highway out of Hanoi we pass through some of the Red River Delta’s prime agricultural areas, heading straight towards Ba Vi (‘Three peaks’) Mountain on sealed road. We skirt around the edge of the mountain, which offers commanding views back over Hanoi on a clear day, and head towards a ferry crossing that leads us across the Black River. On the west bank, we drop south along the river’s embankment on a dirt track as far as the regional capital of Hoa Binh with its impressive dam and HEP station. After enjoying views from the top of the dam, we pass through a tunnel underneath it and rejoin the highway.
Lunch in Hoa Binh, before we head northwest, up and over two passes, and then finally drop down to the mountain valley settlement of Mai Chau. Here we stay overnight with friends of the White Thai minority in a traditional stilt house. In the evening, after feasting, we can enjoy a cultural show of Thai music and dancing, and a range of special local liquors.
Overnight at stilt house in Mai Chau (L, D)
In the morning, we can explore the village and the surrounding area by foot. Life in the countryside starts early so by sunrise there is a wealth of activity.
After breakfast, we head out on the highway before forking off the main road onto an old French colonial road which has become abandoned. This old road used to serve the northwest in the days of little motorised transport but became disused from 1994 when Hoa Binh Dam was opened and the Black River (‘Song Da’) valley was subsequently flooded, eradicating the road to Hanoi. We pass steadily upwards through areas inhabited by Thai peoples, followed by the Dao and H’Mong ethnicities at higher altitudes. The road surface is by no means smooth but the winding route offers magnificent views out over 6 ranges of mountains. In mid-afternoon, we rejoin the main highway and travel on good winding sealed road to Moc Chau – famous for dairy products, tea, a massive cave, and a waterfall.
Overnight in the Trade Union Hotel (B, L, D)
On the third day we backtrack a few kilometres on the main road, before embarking on a new road which drops down the side of a huge valley, steadily falling all the way back down to the Black River Reservoir. The 50km route has plenty of challenging surfaces and is prone to landslides. Much of the area is inhabited by Kinh and both Black and White Thai ethnicities. Depending on time, we can complete another side road, which rises up the opposite side of the valley, offering impressive views over the area on a clear day. Just before the reservoir, we breach a final steep ascent and pass by communes of Dao people, before the descent to the banks of the reservoir and a ferry crossing. Once across we follow the banks of the reservoir past villages all relocated for the flooding of the valley. On easy dirt roads, we approach the delta settlement of Phu Yen, set in the middle of a vast valley floor of paddy fields.
Overnight in a guesthouse in Phu Yen(B, L, D)
We have two options: one takes us around the very end of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range, enjoying good riding on winding sealed mountain roads; the other crosses over the very end of the range and takes us through untarnished rainforest on challenging, rocky road. (The Hoang Lien Son mountain range is the main range of northwest Vietnam and includes the highest peak – Fansipan). From Ba Khe we continue on sealed road through renowned tea growing areas, where the hillsides are literally covered in plantations, all the way to the city of Yen Bai, which sits on the Red River. From here, it’s just a short ride to the edge of Thac Ba Lake, also formed by the construction of an HEP station in the 1970s. We leave the bikes behind and take a boat for an hour’s journey across the clear waters to the Dao village of Phuc An where we stay for the night in a stilt house on the edge of the lake, enjoying Dao hospitality.
Overnight at a stilt house (B, L, D)
After an early start, we swim at a nearby waterfall before heading back across the lake by boat to collect our bikes. After breakfast, we cruise southeast on Highway 2 and then branch off to the sleepy town of Phu Tho. We follow the edge of the Red River along the dyke, almost to the point where it merges with the Black River from where they flow together to Hanoi. By now, we are very much in the lowlands of the delta plains and the north’s main agricultural areas. Harvest time here is a sea of activity. Crossing the Black River by bridge, we pass through Son Tay and then return to Hanoi on the highway.Dinner is at Highway 4 – a traditional liquor and food restaurant in the Old Quarter of Hanoi.
End of services (hotel accommodation today is not included) (B, L, D)