Driving through Heaven’s Gate

We had planned to go together, but after Sa Pa, David had to take a train back to Hanoi. I continued my trip around the northwestern region in a car with some of my other friends.

foggy and bumpy road ahead - Vietnamtravelblog


The foggy and bumpy road ahead.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

9 am:

We climbed up a few hundred steps from Sa Pa to the Ham Rong tourism area. Like other tourist spots that we visited the previous day, Ham Rong was filled with people, and the view was not exactly impressive, partly due to the thick fog, but also because I’ve been to Sa Pa twice many years ago, when it still had much more of it natural and authentic beauty. However, we stopped for some local tea along the way and it was a reminder of how it was long ago.

1 pm:

Lunch at the Cha Pa Restaurant in downtown Sa Pa. The restaurant has been renovated since my last visit, but the food here was still delicious and authentically Sa Pa’s.

3 pm:

It was time to bid farewell to our Estonian friends who had come here to visit and had been our companions for the past week, as well as to my colleague David Cornish. They were headed back to Hanoi by train. We, in the meantime, got back in our car and went on with our adventure.

The fog was getting thicker and thicker. As a driver, I could only vaguely see about 50 metres ahead at any time and had no choice but to put my faith in the GPS. The road was quite narrow and there was no fence between us and the abyss alongside. I drove extremely slowly and carefully and felt very intense, and I could see that everyone else in the car was even more intense than me.

Our next destination was the capital town of Lai Chau Province, about 80 kilometres from Sa Pa. To get there we would have to pass by the Silver Waterfall, which is a popular spot for tourists to Sa Pa. For the first 20 kilometres from Sa Pa to Silver Waterfall, we encountered many cars and buses, some of them carried Hanoi’s license plates. We had hope for some companions, but it turned out that all of them stopped at the Silver Waterfall.

After that, we were on our own. We passed the spot locals refer to as “Heaven’s Gate”. It is the highest point of the Hoang Lien Son Mountain Pass, and the border between Lao Cai and Lai Chau provinces. This is also the highest car road in Vietnam. After that point, we started to descend down the steep pass. The fog was still getting thicker and thicker, as the road got more and more narrow and bumpy. The curves were the tightest I had ever handled so far, and most of those were under renovation where workers were in the process of slicing up the mountain to widen the curves.

I put our car into 2nd gear most of the time to control the descending speed of an average of 20 to 30 km/h. The road was very quiet thanks to the Tet holiday, making it much easier to handle as we did not have to deal other vehicles, but it also gave us a special feeling of loneliness and adventure. We occasionally saw some cars and motorbikes heading the opposite direction. There were also two motorbikes going our direction, and they seemed to be happy to follow us as their navigator for about 20 kilometres.

I started to feel a bit tired as driving required all of my focus, so I pulled the car up and waved goodbye to the people on the motorbikes. We stopped at a large area beside the road, where we saw many road-making equipments and some temporary shelters. The road workers were obviously having their days-off and were gathering for their Tet drinks in the shelters. I didn’t want to disturb them, and the view down into the abyss was completely blurry, so I just took a quick rest and got back into the car.

Another 20 kilometre drive in the cloud, and we finally got low enough to be under it. The view was suddenly so clear and we were really excited to stop to take some pictures. The area was totally deserted, so natural and breathtaking. We looked down the valley and all we saw was hills and trees. I now realised that this had been the most amazing drive I had ever taken in my life, and I felt like I had taken my driving license to a new level. Now I felt much more confident to handle any roads ahead.

4:30 pm:

We drove a few more kilometres and entered the outskirt of Lai Chau Province. Villages started to appear, and we decided to stop at a local household to pay a visit. The house belonged to a man named Tinh. He told us that the village had over 60 households, all belonging to the H’Mong Hoa (Hoa means flower in Vietnamese) ethnic group. The traditional dress here is decorated with lots of floral patterns, hence the name. This is different from the H’Mong people in Sa Pa, who are called H’Mong Den (Black H’Mong) and wear black traditional dress.

Villagers gather around a fireplace in Tinh's house - Vietnamtravelblog


Villagers gather around a fireplace in Tinh’s house.

Tinh’s houses had a large courtyard, and we saw dozens of children playing there cheerfully. He said it is Tet holiday, so kids from all around the village came here to play. The adults, meanwhile, gathered around a fireplace, happily talking the time away. Tinh said all people in this village had been christianised since 1999. However, their way to celebrate Tet was not much different from other Vietnamese, especially in the foods, which included chicken, pork, banh chung anh banh day.

5:00 pm:

We said Happy New Year and goodbye to Tinh and his villagers and continued on our journey. I now personally felt so refreshing to get out of the heavily tourist-condensed town of Sa Pa and see the more natural sceneries and meet the less tourist-affected people.

Along the way, we saw more and more people of different ethnic groups, most dressed up in their traditional costumes to come out and celebrate Tet. All were so friendly as we smiled, waved and said Happy New Year to them. We stopped to cheer with some young girls from the Dao ethnic group. Their traditional dresses were really remarkable and they looked proud and happy in them.

Households spread through the valley - Vietnamtravelblog - Vietnamvisa

Households spread through the valley.

Local woman giving us a friendly wave - VietnamtravelblogLocal woman giving us a friendly wave.

Dao girls dressing up in their traditional costumes in celebration for Tet - Vietnamtravelblog - Vietnamvisa

Dao girls dressing up in their traditional costumes in celebration for Tet.

6:00 pm:

We entered Lai Chau centre. The total distance was not too long for an afternoon drive, so we took it really easy and drove really slowly to enjoy all the beautiful scenery. Before entering the main, old centre town, we saw a new and impressive urban area under construction. It seemed that in the not so distant future, Lai Chau would become a very modern and well-planned town which could rival some major cities in the north.

6:30 pm:

We checked in Muong Thanh Hotel, the biggest hotel in Lai Chau. It was large and the rooms were nice, all for a very reasonable price of VND 250,000 ($13) per night.

We went to sleep early to prepare for another adventure tomorrow: Sin Ho and Pu Dao villages in Lai Chau Province.

Lai Chau Town starts to appear as we drive closer - Vietnamtravelblog - Vietnamvisa

Lai Chau Town starts to appear as we drive closer.

(Source: Dtinews)

Collected by Vietnam hotel