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How Hemingway Inspired a Cyclist to Scale the Heights of Northern Vietnam

Former Saigon resident Dale Nottingham has conquered Vietnam’s extreme northern highlands by bicycle, climbing 22,587 meters over 1,306 kilometers during an epic 12-day ride that started in Bac Kan Province and ended in Dien Bien Phu.

The 55-year-old company director from England was inspired in part by the words of the great American journalist and novelist Ernest Hemingway, who once observed: “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.” He shared a collection of stunning images with Saigoneer, along with some verses of his own about his adventure up north.

Starting in Bac Kan Province, just under 200 kilometers north of Hanoi, Nottingham's ride took in some of the most incredible scenery Vietnam has to offer. Among many highlights were reaching the Ban Gioc Waterfall in Cao Bang Province on the second day; surviving a 35-kilometer wrong turn to reach Dong Van via the famous Ma Pi Leng Pass in Ha Giang on day four; and making it to Lao Cai and then through Sapa on day nine before finally rolling into Dien Bien Phu on day 12, weary but hugely satisfied.

Twisting roads in Ha Giang Province.

Having only taken up the sport while working in Singapore in 2013, Nottingham's feat of solo endurance was, surprisingly, his first multi-day, self-supported ride.

“I had previously competed in a few three- or four-day stage races,” he said. “But nothing similar to this tour, where I had to carry all my own luggage and sort my own accommodation day-by-day.”

In three-and-a-half years of working in Saigon, it was also the first time that Nottingham had ventured further north than Hanoi. Based on the evidence to hand, it was worth the wait.

“The most beautiful parts of Vietnam are to be found in the mountains of Ha Giang and Lao Cai provinces and across the lands of the extreme north,” he shared.

“This is where you will find the heart and lungs of this magnificent land. Experiencing this will forever be the abiding highlight of my time in Vietnam.”

To put some of Nottingham's numbers into perspective, 22,587 meters of climbing is the equivalent of just over two and a half Mount Everests. This means that over the 11 days he was in the saddle (he took one rest day), he averaged 2,053 meters of elevation and 118 kilometers in distance per day. That’s a steep ratio in anyone’s language.

His most grueling was day 10, the second-to-last, when Nottingham slightly misjudged two climbs needed to reach Muong Cha, close to the border with both China and Laos. In the end he managed an impressive 3,139 meters of elevation over 163 kilometers, the last stretch of which was done in complete darkness.

Mountainous scenery on Nottingham's tenth riding day.

“My plan was to stop for the night about 50 kilometers earlier in Muong Lay,” the cyclist shared, “however, when I rolled into Muong Lay at about 4pm, I decided I didn’t much like the look of it, so opted to press on. Needless to say, it took a good deal longer to reach Muong Cha than I had anticipated. That final 14-kilometer descent in the pitch black was a bit squeaky. You hit one pothole and you crash.”

It wasn’t, however, the scariest moment of the trip.

Nottingham elaborated: “Perhaps the most hazardous part of the tour came when riding through the mountain villages where I was frequently chased by snarling dogs, or in one case an entire pack of them. Fight or flight? The decision usually depended on whether I was going uphill or downhill at the time. Once the dog made eye-contact, I had to make a very rapid calculation: who has the freshest legs, me or the dog? It was usually the dog.”

Asked if he ever thought of quitting, the Brit was resolute: “Never! Whenever I was suffering on a long or steep climb, I would say to myself, ‘You came here just for this! This is why you’re here.’ This thought usually got me to the top.”

Followed and encouraged by cycling friends from all over the world on Strava, the ride and run-tracking app, it was only on day 9 that Nottingham admitted to feeling tired.

Previously, on day 6, as he climbed 1,997 meters over 139 kilometers from Ha Giang to Xin Man, he described the roads as follows in the comments section of that day’s Strava post:

‘The roads are variable. A few are good, many are potholed, under construction or in a general state of disrepair, and a handful have been very dodgy. However, all have been rideable, with patience and caution. Just need to take your time and pick your lines carefully.’

Scenery during a break on the most difficult day.

In terms of the toughest section, Nottingham had trouble choosing between two.

“The climb out of Xin Man (aka Coc Pai) and also the ride from Lai Chau to Sin Ho," he said. "In both cases, landslides, construction, rain and 30-meter visibility due to being in the middle of the clouds made for slow progress. In places the road became near impassable. But with patience, perseverance and no Plan B, it’s surprising what you can ride through, even on a road bike.”

Once he was off it, the cyclist addressed the dangers of taking on such a challenge.

“Cycling is a sport that requires a lot of concentration, especially in those moments when it feels least required," he shared. "This ride was no exception, with a few hairy moments, sliding on wet, muddy descents or surfing the detritus spewed out of landslides. But with a little concentration and a lot of luck, I was fortunate enough to emerge unscathed.”

In fact, he didn’t suffer a single flat tire, a remarkable statistic given the terrain on most days.

Finally, when responding to the obvious question of why he hadn’t just ridden a motorbike like most sane people, Nottingham shared thoughts that Hemingway himself would be happy with, summing up quite neatly why it is that cyclists do what they do:

“In this struggle, it is you against the mountain; your strength and your will against the road, the incline; against gravity and all the forces of nature that may, on any given day, conspire to defeat you. It is visceral. It is elemental. Having yourself airlifted to the summit or being chauffeured up on the back of a motorbike would not offer the same mental and physical challenge and could therefore never deliver the same sense of accomplishment. If you just want to take in the view and perhaps have a picnic, then fine, take a bus. If you choose, however, to accept the challenge the mountain offers you, you get on your bike and you ride.”

One of northern Vietnam's many mountain passes.

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