Northern Loop

At Bảo Lạc, I made a navigational decision that would shape the next few days ahead. Like most choices about the paths we take, once taken, your journey is changed forever.

The experiences you’ll have will differ from that point on. The possibilities diverge and you have to forego one to enjoy the other. Sounds obvious but if you’re aware of the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics, it’s intriguing nonetheless.

I chose a more adventurous route, after all it’s one of my stock, glib phrases to tell people that I’m doing all this travelling for adventure.

Push the boundaries a bit. Venture into a least travelled area. Challenge myself a little more to see what happens. Get off the tourist circuit for a while.

When I looked at the map that evening in my hotel room, like every other time beforehand, my eye wants to connect up the roads into a linear path.

Filter out the maze of highways until I’m left with the perfect route. One that’ll take me from where I am to where I want to be. There was such a route along the Chinese border through Cao Bằng province and that was the one I chose.

This was a partly predictable outcome. I’m fascinated by frontiers. One country suddenly ends and another one begins. Language changes abruptly, cultures rub against each other. Often places of great drama, political intrigue and folly.

A human construct. Lines on the map or great geographic divides. I’m naturally drawn to explore these areas, hoping to gain insight into to what still divides us and hopeful to discover how we have overcome such division.

The road seemed ideal, it had very little traffic on it. Had a feeling of remoteness. It passed through numerous small settlements, that like the road itself seemed long forgotten.

Best of all, I appreciated the special warmth and friendliness of the people along the way. I felt very welcome as I cycled through this region. They were very hospitable and wanted to engage me in conversation when they had a chance.

One young man invited me to take tea with his friends. We talked about the future for Vietnam. From where we are sat, they cast an envious eye at their rich neighbours across the Chinese border just 1000m up the road and are impatient for modernisation to reach them.

Yet, they are wise enough to count their blessings too. My young host told me he was poor but rich in affection (as Google Translate put it). Looking around at his friends and family, I understood what he meant.

The following day, after steep climbing through beautiful and varied scenery, I ate my evening meal at a small cafe in a tiny mountain village. The enthusiastic young chef was so happy that I had come to eat at his place and told me so repeatedly.

We shared a conversation with his friends. They, in contrast to their peers up the road, loved living in the countryside and were content with their peaceful lives there.

The local women I met would always ask me how old are my ears (I like to believe that is not a mistranslation). I very polite way to ask the question I think and certainly, it’s a very different question to “how old is your heart?”

Often, the road would deteriorate. At times, little more than a muddy track. Other sections were like the surface of the moon and just as dusty. By the end of each day I was glad to be able to have a shower, wash my clothes and get cleaned up.

After four days on this route, I briefly rejoined the tourist circuit at the Thác Bản Giốc waterfalls on the Chinese border. One side of the falls is in Vietnam, the other in China.

A little further on the river narrows and you could easily cross from on bank to the other anywhere along this unmarked frontier. Indeed, I’m sure the locals do.