Day 1: Hanoi – Mai Chau, ~160 km, ~5 hours, (L, D)
Leaving Hanoi and breaking out of the delta plains we pass through endless limestone karst scenery as we travel south through “Perfume Pagoda” country and extensive farming lands comprising a sea of paddy fields split by tree-lined roads. After a picnic lunch near Chi Ne, we visit the hot springs at Kim Boi, before striking northwest and over two passes, finally dropping 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 dancing and a range of special local liquors. Overnight in Mai Chau.
Day 2: Mai Chau – Moc Chau, ~140 km, ~5 hours, (B, 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 Moc Chau.
Day 3: Moc Chau – Phu Yen, ~140 km, ~5 hours, (B, L, D)
On the third day we backtrack on the main a few kilometres 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 50 kilometres route has plenty of challenging surface 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 village all relocated before the flooding of the valley. On easy dirt road we approach the delta settlement of Phu Yen, set in the middle of a vast valley floor of paddy fields. Overnight in Phu Yen.
Day 4: Phu Yen – Vu Linh, ~150 km, ~5 hours, (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 rain forest on challenging, rocky road. (The Hoang Lien Son mountain range is the main range of northwest Vietnam and also 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 a short ride to the edge of Thac Ba Lake, also formed by the construction of hydroelectricity dam in the 1970s. We load the bikes and take a boat for an hour’s journey across the clear waters to the Dao village of Vu Linh where we stay for the night, enjoying Dao hospitality. Overnight in homestay.
Day 5: Vu Linh – Hanoi, ~180 km, ~6 hours, (B, L)
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 after which 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.