As we round the bend of our last (uphill) switchback this morning, we're greeted by an ethereal vision in the distance: a swirl of fast-moving white fog drifting across the road. As we approach the hanging mist, the chill clouds rush around us, enveloping our bicycles in a damp haze. It feels like we're crossing into a fairytale.
At long last, we've reached the top of the pass! Stopping to take a much needed rest, we don what little cold weather gear we still have with us; it's going to be a chilly descent. Meanwhile, three jovial guys on mountain bikes cruise up behind us, stopping to have their picture taken in front of a sign for the pass.
The guys are all oil riggers, out on holiday together. While we answer questions about our trip, their support vehicle arrives, rendering them all a little needlessly sheepish. We tell them not to worry (it's not a competition!), more curious about their plans than our own.
So, they explain how they've hired bicycles in Da Lat, and will be cruising down to the bottom of the pass. From there, they hop in a SAG wagon for the rest of the trip to Na Trang. What a great alternative to taking the bus!
Bundled up for a chilly descent, I release the brakes and start our long-anticipated coasting. Oh how freeing it feels to race downhill at great speed with no effort! Zigging and zagging through switchback after switchback, I am in awe of my surroundings and how different they are from the other side of the pass.
Just a few minutes ago we were climbing through sunny pine-scented woods, carpeted in red dirt with a few villages strewn here and there, and now we're flying down a rugged, intensely picturesque landscape of rocky peaks blanketed in dense, dark green forest. Craggy boulders lay exposed by the road, and the white mist that welcomed us here continues to billow around us.
Sublimely scenic, this side of the mountain range feels more remote and isolated than the other, for the slopes are too rocky and steep to accommodate villages. Instead of towns, there are waterfalls crashing down the steep inclines like avalanches. Hardly a car or scooter passes; it's just us and the quiet of nature for kilometer after kilometer after kilometer of carefree coasting.
THIS IS AWESOME!
We're about halfway down when we pass the mountain bikers again; they're enjoying a picnic lunch courtesy of their tour guide. Just finishing up, they motion for us to come over and help with the leftovers! More than happy to oblige, we lean our bikes up and join them for fresh fruit and bread with cheese. Thanks guys!
When we're through with our unexpected meal, we all leave together. Tara wants to coast slowly, but I'm keen to attempt a new speed record. I'm hoping to keep pace with the mountain bikers, and maybe to snap a few cool pictures. The guys are much faster than I'd anticipated, and soon we are screaming down the mountain at 50-65kph+ (30-40mph).
I have five pounds of camera in my right hand, and a death grip on my drop bars with my left. This is probably not a good idea, but I'm too overwhelmed by the adrenaline rush of it all to consider the risk. Just as I heave the viewfinder up to my eye and begin firing, we zip past a pair of cycle tourists, slogging ahead in the opposite direction.
I know that Tara will stop to say hello, so I keep pace with the guys for a few more turns. When a split second glance at the GPS reveals I'm about to cross 70kph, I bail on this highly unsafe plan. Grabbing a handful of brakes, I yell goodbye to the mountain bikers as they disappear from sight like the Millennium Falcon dropping into hyperspace.
Taking a deep breath, I turn my bicycle around and charge up the last three switchbacks, arriving out of breath to meet the couple that, sure enough, Tara has stopped to speak with. Sharon and Tim are total sweethearts; we wish we could spend more time with them, but they have a LONG way to go, and we all have to get moving. They want to go all the way to Da Lat today!
We're a little concerned—it's already 2PM and they have, ohhh, ninety kilometers and one thousand meters left to climb. As well, they're about to enter an area where there are no guest-houses, and not much food to speak of either. We give them water, but they refuse to take our noodles and snacks. If you guys ever read this, please let us how the rest of the your ride went!
After we've said our goodbyes, I take one last look behind us, gazing up at the steep switchbacks crisscrossing their way through the mountains. I am more than a little relieved to be going in the other direction.
Dozens of hairpin turns, and a two-thousand meter descent later, we've arrived at the bottom; no longer are we in misty mountain land, but instead the bright, hot, sunny world of sea-level Vietnam. After stopping to eat a late lunch of the usual rice and meat, we continue on, surprised by how hilly the landscape is, and how far we have left to travel.
I won't deny that there's a part of my brain that honestly thought we'd slowly descend all the way to Na Trang, but alas, it is not to be. Fifty-odd undulating kilometers remain between us and a good night's sleep. Up rolling hills and down again, we enjoy the scenery and the villages through which we pass. A ten kilometer stretch of roadwork makes for a dusty ride, but soon we are in the clear once more.
Dilapidated wooden shacks line the roads, practically bursting with adorable half-naked children. We've read that in rural hill villages, simple things like school supplies are greatly appreciated, so today, we give out pencils. The gifts seem to go over well, but there are so many children who come flocking out of their homes to say hello that we quickly run through our entire supply.
Out of the hills at last, we're back in the familiar territory: hectic non-stop towns and traffic. We're about twenty kilometers from the outskirts of Na Trang when school is let out for the day. For the next few minutes, we're cycling in a parade of kids, most of which eventually turn off to go home.
Long after most of the children have waved goodbye, one pair keeps pace with us, intent on racing. They stick around for several kilometers, all of us laughing as we try and fail to communicate with one another in our native tongue.
With one hundred kilometers traveled since our free-camp this morning, we arrive in Na Trang at dusk, elated and exhausted. We're famished, but somehow we manage to keep our wits about us until a clean, cheap hotel is found. Showers had, woodsmoke-imbued clothes donned, it's time to head back out to see what culinary options are available in this touristy beach city. I'm hoping for Italian!