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Climbing high at Velo Vietnam’s Northern Frontier Tour


My stay in Hanoi before the tour. Not a bad $25/night Airbnb to build your bike at.

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In the north of Vietnam, close to the border with China, there are vast mountains, rivers, and gorges called the Frontier Area. While the rest of Vietnam is quickly developing, it’s still rural life in the Frontier. Although we crossed many small towns with amenities on the way (like the basic hotels we stayed each night), most of the people in this area live on the slopes of the mountains and only come to town on Sundays to visit the market.

The Northern Frontier Tour has been the dream of Velo Vietnam’s founder, David Lloyd. David lured invitees with the claim in his brochure, “Extreme beauty awaits”. The other lure was the fact it was “a tour with a competitive edge, Haute Route-style,” which meant some people raced it. Placings were determined from the sum of our Strava segments up the main climbs.

Seventeen riders rode through the Frontier Area in the course of four days. You have to be seriously fit to make it through.

Stage 1: Thái Nguyên > Cao Bằng (188km/2400m)
After a pre-tour dinner and briefing the night before in Hanoi, our bikes were loaded in a truck and the seventeen of us were driven to a starting point outside Hanoi. From there, it was a gentle roll out, casual chat, and getting to know each other before the climbing started. There were five distinct mountain segments and the roads were freshly paved and near perfect. Throughout the way, we saw glimpses of the limestone mountains—almost like a teaser for what's coming—but we didn't actually climb them on this stage. Our overnight stay was at Cao Bằng, which is home to the Ban Gioc Waterfall, but unfortunately, our route and ride duration prevented us from visiting the waterfalls.

I had moderately trained for this tour, by making sure I did some climbing in California before I came to Vietnam. But my focus on this tour was to enjoy the scenery, take some photos, and test out some bag prototypes. I let the others race it out. Stage 1 turned out to be the longest ride I’ve done in my life, but since I took it relatively easy, I wasn’t too burned after it.

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Photo credit: Sam Wilson Visuals

Stage 2: Cao Bằng > Bảo Lạc (126km/2200m)
Stage 2 started off with a gentle 2%, 15km climb which the "racers" attacked while others like myself opted to ride easy and enjoy the mountains before all regrouping after the segment finished. David, who was also riding on this tour, and his staff driving the follow vehicles, always made sure everyone was hydrated, no one was left behind or got lost. During our lunch break, which was a bowl of noodle-forward Phở, David's staff members educated us on the traditions and history of the local people. The whole Velo Vietnam crew is deeply familiar with this area and it shows with their knowledge. The extreme beauty already came on this day, with the biggest mountains coming the next two days.

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Photo credit: Sam Wilson Visuals


Photo credit: Sam Wilson Visuals


Photo credit: Sam Wilson Visuals


Photo credit: Sam Wilson Visuals

Stage 3: Bảo Lạc > Đồng Văn (95km/2400m)
One of the highlights of the tour was on this day, up the Mã Pí Lèng Pass, which is a 1000m climb featuring switchbacks and a gorgeous viewpoint once you reach the top. You're riding through clouds and mist at this time of the year (November). Near the top was the only point on the tour where it got wet, and I was happily using the Handlebar Bag to not only carry my food while riding but to place my Sony A6400 camera inside when it got wet.

After the stunning climb, we had a hot Vietnamese coffee and fried rice lunch (which was welcomed after having ph the last two days). We got back to riding, took numerous photo stops (how could you not?) and descended. The descent was marked by some stunning martian rock formations I wish I stopped to photograph.

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Stage 4: Đồng Văn > Hà Giang (146km/2400m)
This was perhaps my favorite day, despite being the hardest. The legs were tired and my cough that started in Hanoi from the pollution a few days earlier developed into something greater. Anyway, we all made it and were greeted with an absolutely stunning descent through the clouds mid-way through the ride. Even after the massive descent, we had another 1000m of climbing which, again, led us to another stunning descent afterward. It was up and down all day, though, on stage 4 it was significantly more descending than climbing.

Another highlight? All the locals waving at us as we passed by. Although this area is becoming more and more popular for Westerners touring on motorbikes, it's quite rare to see cyclists.

At the end of the ride was a relatively flat run into the town of Hà Giang (last photo, above) which was some of the most gorgeous scenery I've ever ridden. Water buffalos on the side, Frontier pinnacles in the distance, no vehicles, perfect pavement. Some chose to race to town, others simply took it in, hands off the handlebar. What a way to punctuate the end of a trip than a finish like this.

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This year’s Northern Frontier was a pilot event of Velo Vietnam for a wider registration event next year. Check out their website or Instagram and follow their tours around this amazing country!

8 comments

  • Marc Mendoza

    Hey Sean, look up “Monstera House: Temple of Literature” in the Hanoi Airbnb listings

  • Sean Meager

    Good stuff, Marc – where’s that Air BnB? Looks grrreat

  • Daniel McCallig

    Looks and sounds epic Marc! Thanks for sharing – it’s definitely on my bucket list.

  • SAm WIlson

    Great write up Marc.
    Was fantastic to meet u.
    Thanks also for the credits, much appreciated.
    Sam

  • Dale Peter Nottingham

    Nice write-up Marc. Brought back some great memories of riding in this amazing part of the world.

  • David Lloyd

    Thank you Marc – beautiful words. It was a great pleasure to have you on this ride – can’t wait to test out that frame bag and also put my awesome new bar bag to the test!

  • David Russell

    A nice blog that captured the spirit of the ride. Thanks for sharing.

  • Scarlett M.

    Interesting!

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